Many people are confused about whether Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are treatable. The short answer?
“There is currently no cure for dementia,” says Ardeshir Hashmi, MD, section chief of the Center for Geriatric Medicine at Cleveland Clinic.
But, he says, a variety of treatment options can help manage symptoms, improve quality of life, and slow the progression of disease. Read on for Hashmi’s roundup of current dementia treatment options, along with his main takeaways for caregivers.
Dementia treatment often consists of a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, therapies, and behavior and symptom management strategies.
Research suggests that there is a connection between the risk of developing dementia and the health of your heart and blood vessels. Taking steps to improve vascular health can lower the risk of developing dementia, and vice versa.
“What’s good for the heart is good for the mind,” Hashmi says. As such, he encourages dementia patients to adopt healthy lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking, establishing a daily exercise routine, and choosing foods from a heart-healthy diet plan like the Mediterranean diet.
Certain medications can temporarily relieve and help manage dementia symptoms related to memory and cognitive function.
In June 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new Alzheimer’s disease drug called aducanumab (Aduhelm). Many people who have Alzheimer’s disease have amyloid plaques in the brain, and these are thought to disrupt the signals between brain cells. In several studies, people who received aducanumab experienced a reduction of amyloid beta plaques in the brain. However, approximately 40% of patients who received the highest dose of the drug experienced serious side effects like brain swelling (edema) and tiny brain bleeds (microhemorrhages). The FDA is requiring additional studies to better understand the benefits and risks, and to help identify who should receive the drug.
Regarding aducanumab, “there’s still a lot of science that needs to be done,” Hashmi says.
A number of rehabilitative and alternative therapies may also help manage dementia symptoms and improve quality of life.
Many dietary supplements have been studied for dementia treatment, including ginkgo biloba, vitamin B, and omega-3 fatty acids. However, results haven’t shown significant benefits. Talk to a doctor before giving your loved one with dementia any dietary supplements or herbal medicine. This will help prevent side effects and interactions with other drugs.
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When it comes to dementia treatment, many factors can influence care decisions and outcomes.
Dementia symptoms are progressive, meaning they get worse over time. But an early diagnosis gives your family member a better chance of benefiting from treatment. This is why it’s important to see a doctor if you notice changes in your loved one’s behavior and memory. 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.
“Medication — actual pills or patches or any type of medication — is only 2% of what we can currently do for someone with dementia,” says Hashmi. “The 98% is actually non-medication.”
Additionally, he says, any prescriptions should be reevaluated on a regular basis. If the medicines aren’t working for your loved one or aren’t providing enough benefit to outweigh the side effects, “the endeavor is always to slowly wean off any of these medications.” Hashmi says. “The less you take, the less chance of exposure to side effects and the better people feel.”
“Other families, other caregivers are going through the same thing,” Hashmi says. He encourages caregivers to find sources of support — whether in the form of respite care or support groups — and to plan ahead. As dementia progresses, your loved one may need more care than you’re able to provide. Being proactive about understanding your local memory care options and planning for care needs protects both you and your loved one.
This article was developed in conversation with Ardeshir Hashmi, MD, section chief of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Geriatric Medicine, as part of a series of articles featuring expert advice from Cleveland Clinic geriatricians.
Interview conducted with Hashmi, A. Cleveland Clinic. June 28, 2021.
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National Institute on Aging. “How is Alzheimer’s disease treated?”
National Institute on Aging. “Behavioral and lifestyle interventions for prevention and treatment.”
Rasmussen J, Langerman H. “Alzheimer’s disease — why we need early diagnosis.”
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA grants accelerated approval for Alzheimer’s drug.”
American Heart Association. “Tending to heart health may keep dementia at bay.”