Thinking about doing a specific disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. These symptoms occur when the brain is damaged by certain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. This factsheet describes the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, how it is diagnosed, and the factors that can put someone at risk of developing it. It also describes the treatments and support that are currently available.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. This means that gradually, over time, more parts of the brain are damaged. As this happens, more symptoms develop. They also become more severe.

There are drug treatments for Alzheimer’s disease that can temporarily alleviate some symptoms or slow down their progression in some people. (The names in brackets are common brands of these drugs.)

A person in the mild or moderate stages of Alzheimer’s disease or mixed dementia will often be prescribed a drug such as donepezil (eg Aricept), rivastigmine (eg Exelon) or galantamine (eg Reminyl). The drug may help with memory problems, improve concentration and motivation, and help with aspects of daily living such as cooking, shopping or hobbies. A person in the moderate or severe stages of Alzheimer’s disease or mixed dementia may be offered a different kind of drug: memantine (eg Ebixa). This may help with mental abilities and daily living, and ease distressing or challenging behaviours such as agitation and delusions.

Are these drugs effective for everyone with Alzheimer’s disease?

The latest (2011) guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine are available as part of NHS care for people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. There are also now several studies − including work supported by Alzheimer’s Society − which suggest that cholinesterase inhibitors may also help people with more severe Alzheimer’s disease. However, these drugs are not licensed in the UK for the treatment of severe Alzheimer’s disease.

Between 40 and 70 per cent of people with Alzheimer’s disease benefit from cholinesterase inhibitor treatment, but it is not effective for everyone and may improve symptoms only temporarily, between six and 12 months in most cases. According to an Alzheimer’s Society survey of 4,000 people, those using these treatments often experience improvements in motivation, anxiety levels and confidence, in addition to daily living,memory and thinking.

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