Alzheimer’s Disease: Fast Facts

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder characterized by a slow decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. It’s not the same condition as dementia; in fact, it’s one form of dementia. While it’s more common in older adults, it’s not a normal part of aging.

  • Approximately 5.2 million Americans had Alzheimer’s disease in 2014, with 200,000 of those under 65.
  • Of the 5 million sufferers over age 65, 3.2 million are women, and 1.8 million are men. Women are also more likely to be caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients.
  • The numbers of Alzheimer’s sufferers is projected to triple by 2050, as baby boomers age.
  • More than a half-million people die each year due to Alzheimer’s. It’s the 6th leading cause of death in the US (the 5th among those 65 and over).

Drugs to treat Alzheimer’s:

There are 4 FDA-approved drugs used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. 3 are in a class of drugs called cholinesterase inhibitors, which work to slow down the process by which a key neurotransmitter in the brain breaks down. These are:

  • Aricept (donepezil)
  • Razadyne (galantamine)
  • Excelon (rivastigmine)

The fourth drug is an NMDA receptor antagonist, and it works to regulate a neurotransmitter called glutamate, which is involved in learning and memory. This drug is called Namenda (memantine).

Side effects of Alzheimer’s disease drugs:

  • Aricept: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Razadyne: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, loss of appetite
  • Excelon: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, loss of appetite, muscle weakness
  • Namenda: Dizziness, headache, constipation, confusion

Dietary Therapies

Alternative therapies for Alzheimer’s disease abound, from purportedly memory-boosting supplements like gingko biloba to antioxidants like coenzyme Q10. None have been proven effective. Here are a few lesser known supplements that are sometimes recommended to halt the progression of the disease. Please talk to your doctor about any supplements you take or propose to take:

  • Caprylic acid: A medium-chain triglyceride (MCT, a type of fat) produced by processing either coconut or palm kernel oil, this is the active ingredient of Axona, marketed as a “medical food.” The theory is that the body breaks caprylic acid down into ketones that then act as an alternative fuel for brain cells that have lost their ability to use glucose thanks to the disease.
  • Huperzine A: A traditional Chinese medicine, huperzine A is a moss extract with properties similar to cholinesterase inhibitors. Studies so far have shown no difference between huperzine A and a placebo, however. Also, any available formulations are dietary supplements, not drugs, so they aren’t manufactured with any uniform standards. Taking an unregulated supplement may increase side effects of an FDA-approved Alzheimer’s drug a patient may already be taking.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Research has linked high intake of omega-3s to a possible reduction in the risk of dementia. The main omega-3 in the brain is DHA, which is found in the fatty membranes that surround nerve cells. Some studies have found mixed results, but more research is needed.
  • Phosphatidylserine: The theory behind treatment with phosphatidylserine, which a type of lipid (fat) that’s the primary component of the membranes that surround nerve cells, is that it may shore up membranes and potentially protect cells from degenerating. Early clinical trials involved a fat derived from cows, and that research came to an end in the 1990s when mad cow disease became a concern. It’s now sold as a supplement (derived from soy).
  • Tramiprosate: An amino acid found in seaweed, tramiprosate was tested in clinical trials as a potential Alzheimer’s disease treatment, but the results were inconclusive. The manufacturer then decided to abandon developing tramiprosate as a drug and instead market it as a “medical food,” which does not need the same level of FDA approval.

 Other News:

  • In December 2014, a new combination drug received FDA approval for treating moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. Called Namzaric, it’s a single-capsule combination of time-released memantine, and donepezil (these two drugs are often prescribed together).
  • In May 2014 a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine suggested that the antidepressant drug citalopram (Celexa), perhaps by reducing the amount of damaging beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, might be effective in preventing or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s when taken by people at greatest risk of developing the disease. It’s still too early to say if it would be worthwhile, or if the risks (such as cardiac problems) are worth the potential benefit.

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