Treating Alzheimer's disease
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, although medication is available that can temporarily reduce some symptoms or slow down the progression of the condition in some people.
Support is also available to help someone with the condition cope with everyday life.
Once you've been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, your future health and social care needs will need to be assessed and a care plan drawn up.
A care plan is a way of ensuring you receive the right treatment for your needs. It involves identifying areas where you may need some assistance, such as:
- what support you or your carer need for you to remain as independent as possible
- whether there are any changes that need to be made to your home to make it easier to live in
- whether you need any financial assistance
Healthcare professionals (such as your GP or psychiatrist) and social care services, which is normally your local council working in conjunction with the NHS, will usually both be involved in helping draw up and implement care plans.
Read more about care plans for long-term conditions.
A number of medications may be prescribed for Alzheimer's disease to help temporarily improve some symptoms and slow down the progression of the condition.
These include donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine and memantine. Whether these medications are used will depend on the severity of the condition.
Donepezil, galantamine and rivastigmine (known as AChE inhibitors) can be prescribed for people with early to mid-stage Alzheimer's disease. Memantine may be prescribed for people with mid-stage disease who cannot take AChE inhibitors, or for those with late-stage disease.
There is no difference in the effectiveness of the three different AChE inhibitors, although some people respond better to certain types or have fewer side effects.
All of these medications should only be prescribed by specialists such as psychiatrists, neurologists and physicians specialising in the care of older people.
If you are caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease, your views should be taken into account when prescribing medication as well as at regular assessments. These assessments take place to ensure the medication is having a worthwhile effect.
Read guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) on donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine and memantine for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
Donepezil, galantamine and rivastigmine can cause side effects such as:
- feeling and being sick
- fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- insomnia (difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep)
- muscle cramps
Common side effects of memantine include dizziness, headaches, tiredness, constipation, problems with balance, and shortness of breath.
For more information about the possible side effects of your specific medication, refer to the patient information leaflet that comes with it or look up your medication in the Alzheimer's disease medicines guide.
Supportive measures and treatments
In addition to medication, treatment for Alzheimer's disease involves a wide range of other measures and treatments to help people with dementia live as independently as possible.
- an occupational therapist can identify problem areas in your everyday life, such as dressing yourself, and help you work out practical solutions
- grab bars and handrails can be added around your home – for example, to help you get in and out of the bath
- psychological treatments, such as cognitive stimulation, may be offered to help improve your memory, problem-solving skills and language ability
Medication, other psychological therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, and relaxation therapies may also be offered to help reduce any depression, anxiety, agitation, hallucinations, delusions and challenging behaviour that often feature with Alzheimer's disease.
Read more about how dementia is treated.
Practical tips for people with Alzheimer's
If you have Alzheimer's disease, you may find it useful to:
- keep a diary and write down things that you want to remember
- pin a weekly timetable to the wall
- put your keys in an obvious place, such as in a large bowl in your living room
- have a daily newspaper delivered to remind you of the day and date
- put labels on cupboards and drawers
- keep useful telephone numbers by the phone
- write yourself reminders – for example, put a note on the front door to remind you to take your keys with you if you go out
- programme people's names and numbers into your telephone
- set the alarm on your watch to act as a reminder
- install safety devices such as gas detectors and smoke alarms throughout your home
It may also be helpful to get in touch with a local or national Alzheimer's or dementia support group such as the Alzheimer's Society for more information and advice about living with Alzheimer's disease.
Find Alzheimer's support services in your area and read more about living well with dementia.
People with dementia often live for many years after their diagnosis. However, as it is a progressive condition, it's wise to make plans well in advance of the end-of-life phase.
End-of-life care, or palliative care, provides support for people with an incurable illness so they are able to live as well as possible until their death. It also involves support for family members. Care can be provided at home, a hospice, a care home or hospital.
For people nearing the end of life, their care team should assess their needs, make them feel comfortable and enable them to die with dignity in a place of their choosing.
Read more about palliative care for dementia.
Advice for carers
Carers can find information about:
Things you can do to live healthy and well with a dementia diagnosis
Page last reviewed: 26/03/2014
Next review due: 26/03/2016