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Dementia Treatment Options, Therapies, and Supportive Care

Angelike Gaunt
By Angelike GauntAugust 27, 2020
Smiling elderly woman with caregiver

Many people are confused about whether or not dementia is treatable. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, dementia treatment can help manage symptoms, improve quality of life and, in some cases, slow the progression of disease.

Advances in research show that an early and accurate diagnosis is key to effective Alzheimer’s and dementia treatment. This is why it’s important to see a doctor if you notice changes in your loved one’s behavior and memory.

Medications seem to work better in people with mild or moderate dementia. Understanding what’s causing your loved one’s symptoms early on can help your family member get prompt access to the right therapies and care for their condition, make plans to live independently as long as possible, and have a say in financial, legal, and future care options.

Dementia treatment: the importance of understanding dementia causes

In the past, once doctors ruled out any reversible causes of dementia symptoms, they’d default to a diagnosis of senile dementia. However, research now shows that accurately diagnosing the type of dementia causing someone’s symptoms leads to a better quality of life.

A precise diagnosis allows doctors to tailor dementia treatment and therapies to someone’s unique disease symptoms and needs, resulting in improved behaviors and symptom relief.

Dementia treatment options

Current available dementia treatments can’t stop or reverse your loved one’s disease. Dementia symptoms are progressive, meaning they get worse over time. But dementia treatment helps improve quality of life and may slow the progression of the disease in some cases.

Dementia treatment often consists of a combination of medications, therapies, and behavior and symptom management strategies.

Dementia medications: treating memory problems

Dementia medications can help to temporarily relieve and manage dementia symptoms related to memory and cognitive function.

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors, including donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), and galantamine (Razadyne), help improve memory and judgment in dementia patients. Although this medication is most often used to treat people with Alzheimer’s, doctors sometimes prescribe it to patients with other types of dementia — such as vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease dementia, and Lewy body dementia.

    Side effects of cholinesterase inhibitors include weight loss and digestive problems, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. 
  • Memantine (Namenda, Ebixa) helps protect against further brain cell damage in patients with vascular dementia. This drug regulates glutamate, a chemical messenger in the brain associated with learning and memory. Some studies show that this drug may also benefit people with moderate or severe Alzheimer’s.

    Memantine is sometimes prescribed in combination with cholinesterase inhibitors, and may improve cognitive function in patients with advanced dementia.

    Dizziness is a common side effect of memantine. Hallucinations and aggression may also worsen with this drug.

Some people with dementia may need other drugs to treat symptoms and behaviors, such as sleep aids, anti-anxiety drugs, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics. However, these medications may have serious side effects, so it’s important to discuss their safety and risks with the doctor.

Treating dementia behaviors

Treatment for dementia behaviors may include a combination of therapies, behavior management strategies, and medication. Doctors generally agree it’s best to try non-drug strategies for difficult dementia behaviors first.

  • Depression. If your loved one with dementia is depressed, the doctor may recommend behavioral therapy, medications, or a combination of both.
  • Dementia sleep problems. Behavior and environmental changes can help improve sleep in people with dementia. Encourage your loved one to be physically active and limit daytime naps for better rest at night. A soothing environment and calm routine before bedtime may also help.

    If these strategies don’t work, the doctor may prescribe medications. However, side effects from sleep-inducing medications can increase confusion and the risk of falls in people with dementia, so these are usually not recommended for long-term use.
  • Agitation and aggression can be caused by many things, including pain, depression, sleep disorders, hallucinations, or side effects of medications. Treating the cause of your loved one’s symptoms may help, so it’s important to talk about aggressive behaviors with the doctor.

    In some cases, redirecting and responding in a calm manner may help. Regular physical activity, pet therapy, and music therapy may also alleviate agitation and aggression in dementia patients. However, in some cases, antipsychotic medication is needed, especially if aggressive behavior is triggered by paranoia or hallucinations.

Therapies and alternative treatments for dementia

Dementia treatment may include supportive therapies and care. These therapies may help with behavior problems by increasing relaxation, reducing agitation, and improving mood.

Therapies for dementia

  • Cognitive rehabilitation. This type of rehab helps people in the early stages of dementia maintain memory and cognitive function for as long as possible. It also teaches compensation strategies to help people with declining cognition.
  • Physical activity. Studies show that people with dementia who have a regular, light exercise routine can better perform daily tasks, and see improvements in mood and depression.
  • Occupational therapy helps seniors with mild to moderate dementia by teaching coping behaviors and strategies to compensate for memory loss and cognitive decline. It can also help families make their home safer for a loved one with dementia and provide techniques to manage difficult behaviors.
  • Music therapy. Listening to soothing music or singing songs can reduce agitation and aggression, according to research.
  • Pet therapy may reduce anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, and loneliness. Many memory care communities provide pet therapy, or have a pet resident, often a dog or cat. Seniors in these communities can enjoy companionship without the responsibility of caring for a pet.
  • Aromatherapy is safe and may relieve agitation. Lemon balm or lavender oil may be applied to the skin or sprayed in the air for a soothing environment that promotes relaxation.
  • Massage therapy. Some studies show that massage and touch therapy can help reduce agitation and encourage people with dementia to eat.
  • Art therapy is believed to help slow cognitive decline and improve quality of life, but more studies are needed to confirm benefits for people with dementia.

Dietary supplements for dementia

Many dietary supplements have been studied for dementia treatment including ginkgo biloba, vitamin B, and omega-3 fatty acids. However, results have not shown significant benefits. Talk to a doctor before giving your loved one with dementia any dietary supplements or herbal medicine to prevent side effects and interactions with other drugs.

Dementia care: caring for a loved one with memory loss

Understanding your loved one’s condition can help you prepare for the future and learn strategies to  make them more comfortable and caregiving easier.

As dementia progresses, your loved one may need more care and support than you’re able to provide. Contact our Senior Living Advisors (SLAs) for free support when planning for future dementia care. Our local SLAs are experts in memory care and senior living communities in your area. They’ll learn about your family’s unique needs to help you determine the right type of care for your loved one. 


Sources:

Press D, Alexander M. “Treatment of dementia.” 
https://www.uptodate.com/contents/treatment-of-dementia.

Press D, Alexander M. “Management of neuropsychiatric symptoms in dementia.” https://www.uptodate.com/contents/management-of-neuropsychiatric-symptoms-of-dementia.

National Institute on Aging. “How is Alzheimer’s disease treated?” 
https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-alzheimers-disease-treated.

National Institute on Aging. “Behavioral and lifestyle interventions for prevention and treatment.” https://www.nia.nih.gov/report-2019-2020-scientific-advances-prevention-treatment-and-care-dementia/behavioral-and.

Rasmussen J, Langerman H. “Alzheimer’s disease — why we need early diagnosis.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6935598/.

Angelike Gaunt
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Angelike Gaunt
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