This Common Drug Could Help Treat Alzheimer's Disease, Experts Say

Although there is no cure for dementia, some things can ease the symptoms.

The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a neurodegenerative condition that currently affects 6.5 million Americans. By destroying neurons and synapses, which connect neurons and help them communicate, this particular brain disease affects memory, cognition, social behavior, and more. Now, researchers are now identifying drugs that may be beneficial to AD patients, including one that may help relieve a particular Alzheimer's symptom and improve quality of life. Read on to learn which common drug (usually used for a different disorder) may benefit AD patients—and why some doctors say to proceed with caution.

READ THIS NEXT: If You Sleep This Way, Your Dementia Risk Soars, Study Warns.

Alzheimer's disease has no known cure.

white-haired man reading supplement label

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease or related forms of dementia. However, doctors often prescribe medications to Alzheimer's patients to temporarily reduce or relieve certain symptoms. These drugs may help improve cognition, lessen behavioral or psychological symptoms, or help treat underlying conditions which may exacerbate the effects of Alzheimer's.

"We're still looking for a cure to prevent degeneration of the human body's most complex organ system—the brain," says David Merrill, MD, PhD, a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute's Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John's Health Center in California.

READ THIS NEXT: If You Do This at Night, You May Be at Risk of Lewy Body Dementia, Experts Warn.

However, this common drug may help treat one major symptom.

Senior woman taking meds from pill organizer

According to new research published in the BMJ Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, & Psychiatry, a certain noradrenergic drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression may benefit those with Alzheimer's disease. In particular, repurposing these drugs for Alzheimer's patients is believed to improve "general cognition" and alleviate apathy, a symptom that's common among AD patients.

"Individual medication recommendations should be done on a case-by-case basis, targeting whichever symptoms are most problematic," Merrill told Best Life. "That said, this study finds that noradrenergic medication could be useful  in a patient with early-stage AD who has become more apathetic and is struggling to get out and engage in socially and cognitively stimulating activities."

For some, these drugs may help improve quality of life.

Orange and clear capsules of Amphetamine salts, Adderall XR 30 mg pills spilling out of orange pill bottle.

"The presence of apathy [in Alzheimer's patients] has been related to greater caregiver distress, decreased quality of life, and increased morbidity," according to a 2014 study published in the journal Current Opinion in Behavioral Science.

Given the sheer number of patients affected by the symptom, addressing apathy could have a major impact on AD patients. "Perhaps under-appreciated, apathy is the most common behavioral disturbance in Alzheimer's disease," explains Merrill, noting that the drug may be especially useful soon after an Alzheimer's diagnosis. "Having effective treatment options for apathy, especially early on in the disease process, would significantly improve quality of life for patients and families struggling with AD."

When apathy no longer thwarts their ability to engage socially, dementia patients may see cognitive and psychiatric gains. "Being more active and engaged in activities could help stave off or slow further decline," Merrill tells Best Life. "It's really the combination of using available medications, plus ongoing health improvement through lifestyle optimization. Physical exercise continues to be the best available treatment to preserve and protect brain health, and overall health in general. If medication can help get and keep an individual more physically active, that'd be a win," he says.

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There's reason to be cautious about these drugs.

older white woman clutching her chest as her husband looks concerned behind her
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Before beginning any new drug or course of treatment, it's important to weigh the benefits against possible side effects. Experts say it's no different with noradrenergic drugs, which may come with a wide range of side effects.

"The use of noradrenergic drugs could be another useful avenue for practitioners when treating Alzheimer's symptoms," Mahmud Kara, MD, recently told Healthline. "However, we need to remember that these are a group of medications with potentially serious side effects and are usually not recommended for the elderly. Side effects include, but are not limited to, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, confusion, shortness of breath, and risk of addiction." The elderly, a population especially vulnerable to the effects of Alzheimer's disease, may be at heightened risk of severe side effects of this particular drug.

Speak with your doctor to discuss the risks and benefits associated with this and other Alzheimer's treatments.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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