Dementia guide

How is dementia treated?

Most types of dementia are progressive and cannot be cured. However, there are some exceptions, including dementia caused by vitamin and thyroid hormone deficiences, which can be treated with supplements. Some causes can be treated surgically, for example, some brain tumours, excess fluid on the brain (hydrocephalus) or head injury. For neurodegenerative types of dementia, it is important to prevent additional damage by modifying risk factors, such as treating high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 1 diabetes, and stopping smoking

For dementia that cannot be cured, such as Alzheimer’s disease, medicines can be prescribed that may prevent symptoms getting worse for a period of time. These are generally prescribed to people in the early and middle stages of the disease.

It is fairly common for people with dementia to have depression as well. There are many treatments for this. Therefore, your GP may consider prescribing an antidepressant medication. They may consult a specialist or psychiatrist who works with old people.

Perhaps the most important type of treatment is support and care. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with dementia, you should start planning the care that will be required in the future. Discuss the options with the people concerned – your family, your GP and your local authority. The Alzheimer’s Society is also a valuable source of information and support. It has branches in England, Ireland and Wales.

Finally, there are things you or your loved one can do to maintain memory, independence and function.

Medication for dementia

A number of different medications have been shown to be effective in treating mild, moderate and severe dementia. Depending on the underlying diagnosis, severity of the condition, or any other issues observed by the doctor, you may be prescribed medications. However, not everybody will benefit from these drugs.

Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors

Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (such as Donepezil, Galantamine, and Rivastigmine) are licensed to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. They can also be used to treat people with dementia with Lewy bodies, and can be particularly effective at treating hallucinations.

Nausea and vomiting are the most common side effects of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. However, this should settle down within the first two weeks of taking the medication.

Sometimes, acetylcholinesterase inhibitors can also slow down your heartbeat, so you may need to have an electrocardiogram (ECG) both before and during treatment. An ECG is a procedure that records the rhythms and electrical activity of your heart.

Memantine hydrochloride

Memantine hydrochloride is a medication that works by blocking the effects of a chemical in the brain. It is licensed to treat severe Alzheimer’s disease, but can also be used to treat moderate cases where someone does not respond well to acetylcholinesterase inhibitors.

Antipsychotics

Antipsychotics are medicines that can be used to treat challenging and disruptive behaviour, such as aggression or agitation. However, they are used with caution and usually for short periods because they can:

  • increase the risk of a person experiencing cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke or heart attack
  • make other symptoms of dementia worse and cause drowsiness.

Also, in people who have dementia with Lewy bodies, there is evidence that antipsychotics can cause a range of serious side effects, including:

  • rigidity
  • immobility
  • inability to communicate

Therefore, in most cases antipsychotics are only used when there are severe symptoms of challenging and disruptive behaviour that pose a risk of harm. They will only be used following a full discussion about the benefits and risks of treatment with the person being prescribed the drugs, their carer and the relevant care team.

If antipsychotics are used, they will be prescribed at the lowest possible dose and for the shortest possible time. The health of someone taking antipsychotics will also need to be carefully monitored.

Possible side effects of antipsychotics can include:

  • drowsiness
  • shaking
  • trembling
  • muscle twitches
  • spasms
  • weight gain
  • blurred vision
  • constipation
  • lack of sex drive
  • dry mouth

Antidepressants

It is not uncommon for someone with dementia to become depressed (feeling persistently low or sad). Depression can sometimes make the memory of a person with dementia worse. Antidepressants may be prescribed to treat depression.

Psychological treatments for dementia

Psychological treatments do not slow down the progression of dementia, but they can help with coping with the symptoms. Some psychological treatments are outlined below.

Cognitive stimulation and reality orientation therapy

Cognitive stimulation involves taking part in activities and exercises designed to improve your memory, problem-solving skills and language ability.

Reality orientation therapy is a type of therapy that reduces feelings of mental disorientation, memory loss and confusion, while improving feelings of self-esteem.

The therapy may involve group work in a classroom, in which a board prominently displays information such as:

  • the current day and date
  • the location of the classroom
  • the names of the people in the group

The group members repeat a series of tasks designed to give mental stimulation. The tasks also reinforce information regarding the time, the place and the people involved in the group. You will be involved in discussions about a variety of topics, as well as taking part in word and memory games.

Evidence suggests that cognitive stimulation can help improve thinking and memory skills in people with dementia and it is currently the only psychological treatment specifically recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for the treatment of mild to moderate dementia.

Reality orientation may also be beneficial in some cases, but the benefits can be small and are often only apparent with continued effort. The technique is also often considered unsuitable for use in care home settings.

Validation therapy

Validation therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on dementia from an emotional, rather than factual, perspective. It is based on the principle that even the most confused behaviour has some meaning for the person.

For example, if someone with dementia becomes agitated at a certain point every day because they believe their mother is going to come and pick them up, telling them that their mother is no longer alive could cause them to become more agitated and distressed.

With validation therapy, the response to this situation might involve not correcting the person and accepting their concerns, but talking to them about the issue and gradually steering the conversation in another direction. In theory, this should reduce their distress, while acknowledging that their thoughts and feelings have meaning for them.

However, while validation therapy may sometimes be used as part of the treatment of someone with dementia, there is currently not enough evidence about the effectiveness of this approach to be certain whether or not it is beneficial.

Behavioural therapy

Behavioural therapy tries to find reasons for difficult behaviour. Different strategies are adopted to try to change that behaviour.

For example, a person with dementia may have a history of wandering out of their home or care centre because they feel restless. Therefore, encouraging them to take part in regular physical exercise may help to decrease their restlessness.

Behavioural therapy can be used to treat many of the behavioural problems that are associated with dementia, such as depression, aggression and delusional thinking. It is usually given by a carer, such as a trained friend or relative, or by an employed carer. It is supervised by a healthcare professional.


Page last reviewed: 19/06/2013

Next review due: 19/06/2015

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Brain tour: what is dementia?

Dementia affects over 800,000 people in the UK. It is not a disease in its own right and it is not a natural part of ageing. It is an umbrella term that describes a group of symptoms that are caused by many diseases that affect the brain for example, Alzheimer's disease.

Media last reviewed: 08/03/2013

Next review due: 08/03/2015

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