More Than Memory Loss

By Dr. Krista L. Lanctôt

While most people think of Alzheimer’s disease as being a memory problem, this condition is also associated with a host of other symptoms not strictly related to memory. These can include one symptom which is very troubling to both the sufferer and those around the person: agitation.   

Up to 20% of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease also have agitation. As the disease progresses, agitation becomes more common. While most people know what it is when they see it, for those who have not, it is defined as physical or psychological restlessness consistent with distress. It can involve yelling, hitting, irritability, anger, and restless pacing.

As you can imagine, feeling agitated has a major negative impact on the quality of life not only for the sufferer, but for those around that person. Interestingly, researchers are not entirely sure why some people suffer from agitation as a part of their disease, and others do not. It may have to do with differing patterns of damage to the brain tissue. For example, damage to the areas that control anger.

Sometimes agitation can be caused by underlying medical illnesses, so when treating it, that is the first target for treatment. Pneumonia, bladder infections, and even dehydration, can make someone at risk of agitation. After that, if the agitation is truly related to the Alzheimer’s disease, some milder forms of agitation can be managed by caregiver reassurance. Next, environmental changes might help: keeping a consistent routine and avoiding noisy, overstimulating environments. Aromatherapy may also help.

Finally, if the agitation remains very severe, medications may be used. These medications are marketed for other uses. My group and others showed that antidepressants may help with aggression and agitation related to loss of the brain chemical serotonin. Evidence shows that antipsychotics can help with severe agitation. While all medications have side effects, that risk is balanced with the risk of the agitation itself.   

Scientists around the world are working hard to find ways to avoid and treat this symptom of Alzheimer’s. My group is currently testing a medication to see if it will help (  New medications are being developed for Alzheimer’s memory problems, that may also help with these symptoms.  Hopefully, we’ll be better able to help people with agitation, and their loved ones, in the future.

Krista L. Lanctôt, PhD is Senior Scientist for the Brain Sciences Research Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto.

Share Button

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.