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Elder Care

Antipsychotic Medications Show Little Benefit for Individuals with Alzheimer's Disease

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: May 22nd 2008

older couple walking away Caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer's Disease (AD)  should be cautious when doctors suggest using antipsychotic drugs (medications typically used to treat schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders) to treat difficult behaviors that are frequently symptoms of the illness.

These medications are often prescribed to treat agitation, aggression, and psychosis (paranoia; delusions or false fixed beliefs; and hallucinations, or sensing things that are not truly there), particularly when the person with AD lives in an facility (such as a nursing home). Several recent studies suggest that antipsychotic drugs provide limited or no cognitive or behavioral benefits for these individuals.

Worse, these medications pose a significant risk of creating negative side effects such as an increased risk of stroke, drowsiness/sedation, swelling, chest infections, and movement problems similar to Parkinson's disease (e.g., shuffling gait, tremors or uncontrollable shaking, and balance problems). Prolonged use of antipsychotic medications to treat AD may also lead to a worsening of cognitive decline and impaired communication ability.

Caregivers seeking better treatment options to manage difficult behavior should consult with a geriatric mental health care professional who has expertise in designing behavior management plans.  These plans focus on manipulating a person's environment (by examining the triggers and consequences of behavior) to decrease problematic behaviors while focusing on maximizing skills that are still left.  For more information about Alzheimer's Disease and using behavior management techniques to cope with problematic behaviors, please visit our newly updated topic center on Alzheimer's Disease and other Cognitive Disorders.

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