Medications to Treat the Symptoms of Anxiety, Depression, Psychosis, & Sleep Issues in Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Last Updated: July 25, 2019


This page is focused on lesser known medications for treating dementia symptoms. Medications, such as cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine, work to manage and slow the progression of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, in the brain. Individuals with dementia may also be prescribed medications that help deal with difficult behaviors and problems that arise as a result of the disease.


Medications to Treat the Symptoms of Dementia

The most commonly prescribed types of medications are listed below:

Anxiolytics: Medications used to treat anxiety

Dementia can be frightening and worrying process individuals as they lose abilities and independence. If the anxiety is mild, it can be managed without medication. For instance, relieving stress through exercise or meditation. However, more severe responses, such as panic attacks and emotional outbursts, may need to be treated with anxiolytics, medications that help calm and relax.

Because these drugs can be habit-forming, with side effects (including slowed breathing and drowsiness) that worsen over time, doctors recommend not taking them for more than two weeks at a time. Elderly people can be particularly sensitive to side effects, so monitor your loved one closely on these drugs.

Common Drugs (Generic Name):
Ativan® (lorazepam)
Buspar® (buspirone)
Klonopin® (clonazepam)
Serax® (oxazepam)
Valium® (diazepam)
Xanax® (alprazolam)


Antidepressants: Medications used to treat depression

Many individuals with dementia also experience depression. Loss of mobility, interactions with the world, and independence can escalate into loss of appetite, fatigue, and a lack of interest in daily activities. Antidepressants may help improve both mood and function for these people.

Research on this is mixed. Some studies have found a benefit, others say there is no benefit. Some studies have found antidepressants worsen symptoms of dementia, others say they can actually improve overall mental health. As ever, be sure to consult carefully with your loved one’s doctors on whether which medication is best for managing symptoms.

Common Drugs (Generic Name):
Zoloft® (sertraline)
Celexa® (citalopram)
Remeron® (mirtazapine)
Desyrel® (trazodone)


Antipsychotics: Medications used to treat psychosis

As dementia progresses, the grasp on the difference between fact and fiction, and real and imagined, blurs. As this happens, people with dementia may have hallucinations or believe that other people are “out to get them.” Sometimes, the person may become agitated, uncooperative, or even hostile. Antipsychotics are prescribed in more serious cases to help manage difficult behaviors when anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medications) may not be enough.

Caregivers are advised to always begin antipsychotics on the lowest possible dose, and closely monitor for improved symptoms and side effects.

Common Drugs (Generic Name):
Abilify® (aripiprazole)
Zyprexa® (olanzepine)
Seroquel® (quetiapine)
Risperdal® (risperidone)


Hypnotics: Medications used to promote sleeping

Individuals with dementia can also have difficulties getting to sleep or staying asleep. Many of the medications commonly prescribed to dementia patients can fatigue them during the day. This may make it harder for them to fall asleep or to sleep through the night. Some caregivers find it useful to limit the number of naps their loved ones take during the day. If increasing their daily activity does not help, hypnotics may help them find restful sleep.

Studies have found that hypnotics should not be used for longer than four weeks, or symptoms of dementia may worsen. Try to establish a sleep routine, and then discontinue the drugs. Also remember that the side effects of these drugs are sometimes quite strong; the risk of falling, for instance, increases quite a bit. For these reasons, carefully consult with doctors before putting your loved one on a sleep aid.

Caregivers might also consider supplementing melatonin (see below), a hormone that occurs naturally in the body and is available in pill form, before trying pharmaceutical sleep aids.

Common Drugs (Generic Name):
Ambien® (zolpidem)
Restoril® (temazepam)
Sonata® (zaleplon)


Cautions in Regard to Medications

Medications are sometimes prescribed and may help the person with dementia to relax. However the medications may have unwanted side effects, such as drowsiness. Emotional outbursts may also be an indication of untreated pain that the person cannot describe. Caregivers who witness this should consider getting a medical evaluation for their loved one.

The purpose of many of these medications is to protect and promote the safety and wellbeing of individuals with dementia and those around them. There are often ways to address the problematic behaviors and symptoms that can reduce or remove the need for a pharmacological solution. However, these decisions are best made in cooperation with your loved one’s physician. Additionally, particular forms of dementia may not benefit as well from some of these drugs, so be sure that you and your physician are aware of the individual’s diagnosis and its particular needs.