5 Types of Medication Used to Treat Sundowning & Difficult Alzheimer’s Behaviors

medication for Alzheimer's behavior

One of the greatest challenges, when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, is coping with sundowning and with difficult behaviors.

These are symptoms beyond the chronic memory/thinking problems that are the hallmark of dementia. They include problems like:

  • Delusions, false accusations, paranoid behaviors, or irrational beliefs
  • Agitation (getting “amped up” or “revved up”) and/or aggressive behavior
  • Restless pacing or wandering
  • Disinhibited behaviors, which means saying or doing socially inappropriate things
  • Sleep disturbances

These are technically called “neuropsychiatric” symptoms, but regular people might refer to them as “acting crazy” symptoms. Or even “crazy-making” symptoms, as they do tend to drive family caregivers a bit nuts.

And when these behaviors happen in the late afternoon or early evening, it’s usually called “sundowning“. (In most cases, sundowning is triggered by fatigue; anticholinergic medications may cause sundowning symptoms as well.)

Because these behaviors are difficult and stressful for caregivers — and often for the person with dementia — people often ask if any medications can help.

The short answer is “Maybe.”

A better answer is “Maybe, but there will be side effects and other significant risks to consider, and we need to first attempt non-drug ways to manage these behaviors.”

In fact, no medication is FDA-approved for the treatment of these types of behaviors in Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. (For more on the drugs that are FDA-approved to treat the cognitive symptoms of dementia, see here: 4 Medications to Treat Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias: How They Work & FAQs.)

But it is VERY common for medications — especially antipsychotics — to be prescribed “off-label” for this purpose.

This is sometimes described as a “chemical restraint” (as opposed to tying people to a chair, which is a “physical restraint”). In many cases, antipsychotics and other tranquilizing medications can certainly calm the behaviors. But they can have significant side effects and risks, which are often not explained to families.

Worst of all, they are often prescribed prematurely, or in excessive doses, without caregivers and doctors first putting in some time to figure out what is triggering the behavior, and what non-drug approaches might help.

For this reason, in 2013 the American Geriatrics Society made the following recommendation as part of its Choosing Wisely campaign: “Don’t use antipsychotics as first choice to treat behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.”

You may now be wondering what should be the first choice. This depends on the situation, but generally, the first choice to treat difficult behaviors or sundowning is NOT medication. (A possible exception: geriatricians do often consider medication to treat pain or constipation, as these are common triggers for difficult behavior.)

Instead, medications should be used after non-drug management approaches have been tried, or at least in combination with non-drug approaches. (Learn about these here: 7 Steps to Managing Difficult Dementia Behaviors Safely & Without Medications.)

Of course in certain situations, medication should be considered. If your family member has Alzheimer’s or another dementia, I want you to be equipped to work with the doctors on sensible, judicious use of medication to manage difficult behaviors.

In this post, I’ll review the most common types of medications used to treat sundowning and difficult behaviors in dementia. I’ll also explain the approach that I take with these medications.

5 Types of Medication For Sundowning or Difficult Behaviors in Dementia

Most medications used to treat difficult behaviors fall into one of the following categories:

1. Antipsychotics. These are medications originally developed to treat schizophrenia and other illnesses featuring psychosis symptoms. (For more on psychosis, which is common in late life, see 6 Causes of Paranoia in Aging & What to Do.)

Commonly used drugs: Antipsychotics often used in older adults include:

  • Risperidone (brand name Risperdal)
  • Quetiapine (brand name Seroquel)
  • Olanzapine (brand name Zyprexa)
  • Haloperidol (brand name Haldol)
  • For a longer list of antipsychotic drugs, see this NIH page.

There is also now a newer antipsychotic available called pimavanserin (brand name Nuplazid). It was FDA-approved in 2016 for psychosis associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Usual effects: Most antipsychotics are sedating, and will calm agitation or aggression through these sedating effects. Antipsychotics may also reduce true psychosis symptoms, such as delusions, hallucinations, or paranoid beliefs, but it’s rare for them to completely correct these in people with dementia.

Risks of use: The risks of antipsychotics are related to how high the dose is, and include:

  • Decreased cognitive function, and possible acceleration of cognitive decline
  • Increased risk of falls
  • Increased risk of stroke and of death; this has been estimated as an increased absolute risk of 1-4%
  • A risk of side effects known as “extrapyramidal symptoms,” which include stiffness and tremor similar to Parkinson’s disease, as well as a variety of other muscle coordination problems
  • People with Lewy-body dementia or a history of Parkinsonism may be especially sensitive to antipsychotic side effects; in such people, quetiapine (brand name Seroquel) is considered the safest choice

Evidence of clinical efficacy: Clinical trials often find a small improvement in symptoms. However, this is offset by frequent side-effects. Studies have also repeatedly found that using antipsychotics in older people with dementia is associated with a higher risk of stroke and of death.

2. Benzodiazepines. This is a “sedative/tranquilizer” category of medication that relaxes people fairly quickly. So these drugs are used for anxiety, for panic attacks, for sedation, and to treat insomnia. They can easily become habit-forming.

Commonly used drugs: In older adults, these include:

  • Lorazepam (brand name Ativan)
  • Temazepam (brand name Restoril)
  • Diazepam (brand name Valium)
  • Alprazolam (brand name Xanax)
  • Clonazepam (brand name Klonopin)

Usual effects: In the brain, benzodiazepines act similarly to alcohol, and they usually cause relaxation and sedation. Benzodiazepines vary in how long they last in the body: alprazolam is considered short-acting whereas diazepam is very long-acting.

Risks of use: A major risk of these medications is that in people of all ages, they can easily cause both physical and psychological dependence. Additional risks that get worse in older adults include:

  • Increased risk of falls
  • Paradoxical agitation (some older adults become disinhibited or otherwise become more restless when given these drugs)
  • Increased confusion
  • Causing or worsening delirium
  • Possible acceleration of the cognitive decline

In older adults who take benzodiazepines regularly, there is also a risk of worsening dementia symptoms when the drug is reduced or tapered entirely off. This is because people can experience increased anxiety plus discomfort due to physical withdrawal, and this often worsens their thinking and behavior.

Stopping benzodiazepines suddenly can provoke life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, so medical supervision is mandatory when reducing this type of medication. (See How You Can Help Someone Stop Ativan for more information.)

Evidence of clinical efficacyA recent review of clinical research concluded there is “limited evidence for clinical efficacy.” Although these drugs do have a noticeable effect when they are used, it’s not clear that they overall improve agitation and difficult behaviors in most people. It is also not clear that they work better than antipsychotics, for longer-term management of behavior problems.

3. Mood stabilizers. These include medications otherwise used for seizures. They generally reduce the “excitability” of brain cells and other neurons.

Commonly used drugs: Valproic acid (brand name Depakote) is the most commonly used medication of this type, in older adults with dementia. It is available in short- and long-acting formulations.

Usual effects: The effect varies depending on the dose and the individual. It can be sedating.

Risks of use: Valproic acid requires periodic monitoring of blood levels. Even when the blood level is considered within an acceptable range, side effects in older adults are common and include:

  • Confusion or worsened thinking
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty walking or balancing
  • Tremor and development of other Parkinsonism symptoms
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea

Evidence of clinical efficacyreview of randomized trials of valproate for agitation in dementia found no evidence of clinical efficacy, and described the rate of adverse effects as “unacceptable.” Despite this, some geriatric psychiatrists and other experts feel that valproate works well to improve behavior in certain people with dementia.

4. Anti-depressants. Many of these have anti-anxiety benefits. However, they take weeks or even months to reach their full effect on depression or anxiety symptoms.

Commonly used drugs: Antidepressants often used in older people with dementia include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants:
    • Citalopram, escitalopram, and sertraline (brand names Celexa, Lexapro, and Zoloft, respectively) are often used
    • Paroxetine (brand name Paxil) is another often-used SSRI, but as it is much more anticholinergic than the other SSRIs, geriatricians would avoid this medication in a person with dementia
  • Mirtazapine (brand name Remeron) is an antidepressant that can increase appetite and sometimes increases sleepiness when given at bedtime
  • Trazodone (brand name Desyrel) is a weak antidepressant that is sedating and is often used at bedtime to help improve sleep

Usual effects: The effects of these medications on sundowning and on agitation is variable. SSRIs may help some individuals, but it usually takes weeks or longer to see an effect. For some people, a sedating antidepressant at bedtime can improve sleep and this may reduce daytime irritability.

Risks of use: The anti-depressants listed above are generally “well-tolerated” by older adults, especially when started at low doses and with slow increases as needed. Risks and side effects include:

  • Nausea and gastrointestinal distress, especially when first starting or increasing doses (SSRIs)
  • SSRIs may be activating in some people, which can worsen agitation or insomnia
  • Citalopram (in doses higher than 20mg/day) can increase the risk of sudden cardiac arrest due to arrhythmia
  • An increased risk of falls, especially with the more sedating antidepressants

Evidence of clinical efficacyA 2014 randomized trial found that citalopram provided a modest improvement in neuropsychiatric symptoms; however the dose used was 30mg/day, which has since been discouraged by the FDA. Otherwise, clinical studies suggest that antidepressants are not very effective for reducing agitation. (In fact, randomized trials find that antidepressants do not seem to improve depressive symptoms in people with Alzheimer’s disease.)

5. Dementia drugs. These are the drugs FDA-approved to treat the memory and thinking problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In some patients, they seem to help with certain neuropsychiatric symptoms, and they might help with sundowning. For more on the names of these drugs and how they work, see 4 Medications to Treat Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.

Note: I am not including medications to manage dementia-related sleep disturbances in this post. You can learn more about those here: How to Manage Sleep Problems in Dementia.

If you’re wondering which medication is best for sundowning and difficult behaviors in dementia

You may be now wondering just how doctors are supposed to manage medications for difficult dementia behaviors.

Here are the key points that I usually share with families:

  • Before resorting to medication: it’s essential to try to identify what is triggering/worsening the behavior, and it’s important to try non-drug approaches, including exercise.
    • Be sure to consider treating possible pain or constipation, as these are easily overlooked in people with dementia. Geriatricians often try scheduling acetaminophen 2-3 times daily, since people with dementia may not be able to articulate their pain. We also titrate laxatives to aim for a soft bowel movement every 1-2 days.
  • No type of medication has been clinically proven to improve sundowning for most people with dementia. If you try medication for this purpose, you should be prepared to do some trial-and-error, and it’s essential to carefully monitor how well the medication is working and what side effects may be happening.
  • Antipsychotics and benzodiazepines work fairly quickly, but most of the time they are working through sedation and chemical restraint. They tend to cloud thinking further. It is important to use the lowest possible dose of these medications.
  • Benzodiazepines probably increase fall risk more than antipsychotics do and are habit-forming. They are also less likely to help with hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. For these reasons, if a faster-acting medication is needed, geriatricians usually prefer antipsychotics to benzodiazepines.
  • Antidepressants take a while to work but are generally well-tolerated. They may not improve depressive symptoms, but they seem to make some people with dementia less irritable or anxious. Geriatricians often try escitalopram or citalopram in people with dementia.
  • It is usually worth trying a dementia drug (such as a cholinesterase inhibitor or memantine) if the person is not already on these medications, as these drugs also tend to be well tolerated.

I admit that although studies find that non-drug methods are effective in improving dementia behaviors and managing sundowning, it’s often challenging to implement them.

For people with dementia living at home, family caregivers or paid helpers often have limited time and energy to learn and practice behavior management techniques. Despite the risks of antipsychotics, family members are often anxious to get some relief as soon as possible.

As for residential facilities for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, they vary in how well their staff are trained in non-drug approaches.

What you can do about medications and difficult dementia behaviors

If your relative with dementia is not yet taking medications for sundowning and other difficult behaviors, consider these tips:

  • Start keeping a journal and learn to identify triggers of difficult behaviors. You will need to observe the person carefully. Your journaling will come in handy later if you start medications, as this will help you monitor for benefits and side effects.
  • If the difficult behaviors really emerge or escalate in the late afternoon or evening, as is typical for sundowning, see if you can avoid fatigue or overstimulation by creating a routine that allows the person to rest quietly by mid-afternoon. You can find more tips to manage sundowning here.
  • Learn to redirect and de-escalate difficult dementia behaviors. Contact your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter or local Area Agency on Aging to find support near you. You can also learn a good approach in this article: 7 Steps to Managing Difficult Dementia Behaviors (Safely & Without Medications)
  • Ask your doctor to help assess for pain and/or constipation. Consider a trial of scheduled acetaminophen, and see if this helps. (For more on acetaminophen, see How to Choose the Safest Over-the-Counter Painkiller for Older Adults.)
  • Consider the possibility of depression. It’s reasonable to consider a trial of escitalopram or a related antidepressant. That said, clinical research suggests antidepressants don’t work well in people with dementia. Research does suggest that in dementia, depression treatments involving certain types of therapy plus positive lifestyle changes is probably more effective than medication.
  • If the person is often very agitated, aggressive, or paranoid, or if otherwise the behavioral symptoms are causing significant distress to the older person or to caregivers, it’s often reasonable to try an antipsychotic.
    • Be sure to discuss the increased risk of stroke and death with the doctor and among family members. This can be a reasonable risk to accept, but it’s essential to be informed before proceeding.
    • It’s best to start with the lowest dose possible.
    • If there have been visual hallucinations or other signs of possible Lewy-Body dementia, quetiapine (brand name Seroquel) is usually the safest first choice to manage sundowning or other difficult behaviors.
  • For all medications for dementia behaviors:
    • Monitor carefully for evidence of improvement and for signs of side effects.
    • Doses should be increased a little bit at a time.
    • Especially for antipsychotics, the goal is to find the minimum necessary dose to keep behavior manageable.

If your relative with dementia is currently taking medications for behaviors or for sundowning, then you will have to consider at least the following two issues.

One is whether the behavior issues currently seem manageable or not. If the behaviors are still often very difficult, then it’s important to look into triggers and other behavioral management approaches.

Ongoing agitation or difficult behaviors may also be a sign that the medication isn’t effective for your relative. So it may also be reasonable to consider a change in medication. The best is to work closely with a doctor AND a dementia behavior expert; some social workers and geriatric care managers are very good with dementia behaviors.

The other issue is to make sure you are aware of any risks or side effects that the current medications may be causing.

The main side effects I see people with dementia experience are excess drowsiness, excess confusion, and falls. These are usually due to high doses of antipsychotics and/or benzodiazepines. In such cases, it’s often possible to at least reduce the dosages somewhat. Addressing any other anticholinergic or brain-dampening medications can also help.

Now should you aim to get your relative completely off antipsychotics, in order to reduce mortality risk, improve alertness and thinking, and to reduce fall risk?

I have found that sometimes tapering people completely off antipsychotics is possible, but it can be a labor-intensive process. Furthermore, studies find that a certain number of people with dementia “relapse” after antipsychotics have been discontinued. Another very interesting 2016 study of antipsychotic review in nursing homes found that stopping antipsychotics tended to make behavior worse unless the nursing home also implemented “social interventions.”

In other words, attempting to completely stop antipsychotic medications involves effort, may be followed by worse behavior, and is less likely to succeed if you cannot concurrently provide an increase in beneficial social contact or exercise. It is certainly worth considering, but in people who are taking more than the starter dose of antipsychotic, it can be challenging.

No easy solutions but improvement IS usually possible

As many of you know, behavior problems are difficult in dementia in large part because there is usually no easy way to fix them.

Many — probably too many — older adults with Alzheimer’s and other dementias are being medicated for their sundowning or other behavior problems.

If your family is struggling with behavior problems, I know that reading this article will not quickly solve them.

But I hope this information will enable you to make more informed decisions. This way you’ll help ensure that any medications are used thoughtfully, in the lowest doses necessary, and in combination with non-drug dementia behavior management approaches.

To learn about non-drug management approaches, I recommend this article: 7 Steps to Managing Difficult Dementia Behaviors (Safely & Without Medications)

And if you are looking for a memory care facility, try to find out how many of their residents are being medicated for behavior or for sundowning. For people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, it’s best to be cared for by people who don’t turn first to chemical restraints such as antipsychotics and benzodiazepines.

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This article was first published in 2016, and was last updated by Dr. K in May 2023.