By studying the effects of the disease process in Alzheimers patients’ brains, a combination of plaques between neurons and tangles within neurons, scientists can experiment with a variety of Alzheimer’s medications to slow the damage to the brain and to improve the quality and duration of patients’ lives. The effectiveness of medications for a person with the disease, however, is debatable, and a cure remains as elusive as the cause.
The most widely used and the only FDA-approved group of Alzheimers medications involve a chemical compound called acetylcholine, which is essential for the functioning of neurons in the brain. Persons with the disease are found to have low levels of acetylcholine, so drugs such as Aricept, Exelon, and Reminyl attempt to inhibit the production of the enzyme Acetylcholinesterase, which eats away at healthy acetylcholine.
Effectiveness of Alzheimer’s medication
Debate rages about just how effective the drugs are at improving cognitive functioning and slowing impairment because some patients with other serious health problems were not included in the studies on the medications. Also, the medications can have some unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
So, they have to be administered to patients in slowly increasing amounts over a period of time. Studies have found, though, that, in as many as twenty percent of Alzheimer’s patients taking acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, cognitive impairment is slowed by as much as a year, offering patients and their families precious time.
Other types of medications
Several other types of medications for a person with Alzheimer’s disease are being researched, but their effectiveness, by and large, has not been supported by studies. For example, vitamin E and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen, have been thought to combat the damaging effects of inflammation associated with a plaque in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
While not enough evidence exists for either one being an effective treatment for a person with Alzheimer’s disease, NSAIDs have been found to offer some protection. Another potential preventative drug is estrogen, a hormone often taken by postmenopausal women, which has been found to keep the brain healthier and younger by increasing cerebral metabolism.
Alzheimer’s medication and estrogen
While studies show that estrogen can decrease the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the hormone, when combined with the hormone progestin, has been linked to a greater incidence of cardiovascular problems, such as strokes; therefore, estrogen is not recommended as a treatment for Alzheimer’s.
Ginkgo biloba, a popular plant extract associated with improving brain function, has also been found to have dangerous side effects, so, despite studies that show it as a mildly effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, it is not recommended for patients.
Finally, selegiline, which is a type of antidepressant, has been studied as a potential treatment for some of the effects of Alzheimer’s, such as individual behaviors and moods. Still, research is not supportive enough for scientists to endorse it.
In the end, while researchers have found some medications to be more effective than other drugs for a person with the disease, patients and their families must make their own decisions regarding Alzheimer’s medication options.