Anti-dementia drugs for people with memory problems but without dementia

Dementia is a very common condition and, with ageing populations, will only increase in importance in the coming years. Early diagnosis and treatment help people with dementia stay independent and living at home for longer. Cholinesterase inhibitor ('anti-dementia') drugs are used to treat people with Alzheimer's disease (the most common cause of dementia) and can be started as soon as dementia is diagnosed. However, it is not clear whether they are helpful, or indeed safe, in people who have some memory problems but who do not have dementia. It is extremely difficult to predict who will go on to develop dementia from this group of people and some will even get better and their memory return to normal. There is very little evidence that these drugs prevent the development of dementia over three years and people taking them experience a number of side effects including nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, as well as muscle spasms/leg cramps and abnormal dreams.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is very little evidence that cholinesterase inhibitors affect progression to dementia or cognitive test scores in mild cognitive impairment. This weak evidence is overwhelmed by the increased risk of adverse events, particularly gastrointestinal. Cholinesterase inhibitors should not be recommended for mild cognitive impairment.

Read the full abstract...

Mild cognitive impairment is hypothesised to represent a pre-clinical stage of dementia but forms a heterogeneous group with variable prognosis.


To assess the safety and efficacy of cholinesterase inhibitors in people with mild cognitive impairment.

Search strategy: 

Trials were identified from the Cochrane Dementia and Cognitive Improvement Group's Specialised Register, which is frequently updated from the major healthcare databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO and Lilacs) as well as trial registers and grey literature.

Selection criteria: 

Double-blind, placebo-controlled randomised trials of any cholinesterase inhibitor in people with mild cognitive impairment.

Data collection and analysis: 

Data were extracted from the published reports of the included studies, combined by meta-analysis where appropriate, and treatment efficacy and risk of adverse events were estimated.

Main results: 

Nine studies (from eight published reports) of 5149 individuals with mild cognitive impairment (however defined) were included in the review. Limited pooling of results was possible owing to different lengths of trials. Meta-analysis of the three studies reporting conversion to dementia gives no strong evidence of a beneficial effect of cholinesterase inhibitors on the progression to dementia at one, two or three years. The risk ratio (RR) for conversion at two years was significantly different from unity (0.67; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.55 to 0.83), but this is based on only two studies reported in the same article. There was essentially no effect of cholinesterase inhibitors on cognitive test scores.

Based on the results from 4207 individuals, there were significantly more adverse events in the cholinesterase inhibitor groups (RR 1.09; 95% CI 1.02 to 1.16), but no more serious adverse events or deaths. Gastrointestinal side effects were much more common (diarrhoea: RR 2.10; 95% CI 1.30 to 3.39; nausea: RR 2.97; 95% CI 2.57 to 3.42; vomiting: RR 4.42; 95% CI 3.23 to 6.05). Cardiac problems were no more likely in either group (RR 0.71; 95% CI 0.25 to 2.02). Other side effects reported significantly more often in the cholinesterase inhibitor group were muscle spasms/leg cramps (RR 7.52; 95% CI 4.34 to 13.02), headache (RR 1.34; 95% CI 1.05 to 1.71), syncope or dizziness (RR 1.62; 95% CI 1.36 to 1.93), insomnia (RR 1.66; 95% CI 1.36 to 2.02) and abnormal dreams (RR 4.25; 95% CI 2.57 to 7.04).