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Drugs for Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms of Alzheimer's

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Updated April 01, 2012

Drugs called psychotropic medications may be prescribed at times to treat some of the behavioral and emotional symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. These drugs can be effective but also may cause severe side effects. This class of medications is typically used after attempting non-drug approaches consistently and finding them to be ineffective.

Psychotropic medications can include antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications, as well as mood stabilizers and hypnotic medications. These medications are prescribed to address symptoms such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, hallucinations and paranoia.

  • Anti-Anxiety Medications
    As the name implies, these medications target anxious feelings and behaviors. They can be helpful in calming someone struggling with anxiety but their effectiveness often wears off within a few hours. Ativan and Xanax are two common medications in this group.

  • Antidepressant Medications
    Antidepressant medications may be appropriate to use when an individual is struggling with depression. Depression is often present in persons with Alzheimer's and should not be considered a normal part of getting older. Mood-elevating medications such as Celexa and Remeron can improve an individual's overall emotional health and outlook on life, and are generally thought of as the safest group of psychotropic medications. Antidepressants can also have other positive effects such as increasing one's appetite and facilitating better sleep at night.

  • Antipsychotic Medications
    Antipsychotic medications such as Zyprexa and Risperdal are used to treat psychosis, including hallucinations and paranoia. The use of antipsychotic medications can be effective and appropriate at times for persons with Alzheimer's disease. However, this is not without risk and controversy. The Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about using antipsychotic medications to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's, so caution and monitoring is essential.

  • Mood Stabilizers
    Some medications act in such a way to even out moods and behaviors. One such mood stabilizer medication is Depakote. While it is classified as an anti-seizure medication, it has shown to be effective in treating some of the symptoms of Alzheimer's.

  • Hypnotics
    Often referred to as "sleepers", hypnotic medications such as Ambien and Lunesta are prescribed with the goal of improving sleep problems in individuals with Alzheimer's. During the middle stages of Alzheimer's, restlessness and insomnia are common issues. However, these medications can cause lingering drowsiness during the daytime and increase the risk for falls and other complications.

Best Practices

When considering medications for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, always communicate with the physician about other medications or supplements the individual is taking.

Also, although the non-drug approaches you've been using may need to be supplemented by psychotropic medications, don't give up. Continue to experiment with different strategies and approaches to handle challenging behaviors.

Keep in mind that Alzheimer's symptoms and challenges change over time. It's possible that a medication can be discontinued or decreased as the individual progresses to the next stage of Alzheimer's. Using the lowest effective dose of medication can minimize the potential for negative side effects and drug interactions as well as increase the quality of life for the person with Alzheimer's disease.

Sources:

Alzheimer's Association. Statement Regarding Treatment of Behavioral and Psychiatric Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease. Accessed July 31, 2011. http://www.alz.org/national/documents/statements_antipsychotics.pdf

Alzheimer's Society. Treating Behavioural and Psychological Symptoms of Dementia. Accessed July 31, 2011. http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=1191&pageNumber=2

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