Information about Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs and Alzheimer's Risk

The first indication that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs) might prevent Alzheimer's disease came from the observation that people with rheumatoid arthritis are less likely to have Alzheimer's disease—as much as six to 12 times lower than in the general population.

Because most people with rheumatoid arthritis take NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil and other brands) and naproxen (Aleve and others) to control their pain, some experts hypothesized that these pain relievers might provide protection against Alzheimer's disease by reducing inflammation in the brain.

Inflammatory proteins have been found in the brains and blood samples of people with Alzheimer's disease. A study reported in the Archives of Neurology found that levels of these inflammatory proteins are elevated even before the onset of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.

What's more, other studies have shown that the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease is substantially reduced in people who have a history of using NSAIDs. In one study, the risk of developing Alzheimer's was reduced by half in those who regularly took NSAIDs—mostly ibuprofen—compared with those who did not take these drugs.

Regular use of acetaminophen (Tylenol), which is not an NSAID, did not decrease the risk of Alzheimer's. However, another study, published in the journal Neurology, found that elderly individuals who took NSAIDs were more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

When NSAIDs have been given to people who already have mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease as a means of slowing cognitive decline, the medications have had no effect. Similarly, in a large study of healthy people age 70 or older who had a family history of Alzheimer's disease, the NSAIDs celecoxib (Celebrex) and naproxen showed no ability to prevent the disease.

Until more definitive research is done, doctors advise against taking NSAIDs in an attempt to prevent Alzheimer's disease because the drugs can have potentially serious side effects in high doses or when used long term.

Publication Review By: Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H.

Published: 08 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 02 Oct 2014