Harvard Mental Health Letter

Medications for Alzheimer's disease

Benefits of currently approved drugs are limited, but research continues.

Thanks to longer life expectancy, the senior population is steadily growing in the United States. A 2010 report from the Alzheimer's Association estimates that, by 2030, the 65+ population will be 71 million — double what it is today. By then, the number of people with Alzheimer's disease will be 7.7 million, more than a 50% increase from the 5.1 million people ages 65 and over currently suffering from the disease.

Because age is the most significant risk factor for Alzheimer's, efforts to develop effective therapies are more important than ever. However, while there are a variety of therapies on the horizon, some in the form of new drugs that may quell the disease by blocking the chain of events that underlies its destructive process, truly effective therapies remain years away. Available medications can only alleviate symptoms temporarily; no current treatments prevent or stop cognitive deterioration due to Alzheimer's. A number of medications can help with behavior problems in this illness, such as outbursts of anger. But these are best used in conjunction with environmental approaches, such as simplifying the home environment.

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