Commonly used dementia drugs can help more patients with Alzheimer’s
The dementia drug donepezil (Aricept), already widely used to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, can also help in moderate to severe patients, according to a report funded by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Alzheimer’s Society. The study suggests that extending treatment to this group could help treat twice as many sufferers worldwide. Encouragingly, the drug has greater positive benefits for patients more severely affected than for those in the earlier stages of dementia.
It is estimated that 18 million people worldwide suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia. According to the World Health Organization, of the 35 million people currently living with dementia globally, 58% live in low- and middle-income countries and by 2050 this figure is projected to reach 71% of the total.
The multi-centre UK study, led by Professor Robert Howard at King’s College London, is the first trial to demonstrate the value of continued drug intervention for those patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease who have deteriorated beyond the point where donepezil is currently recommended.
The study, to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at two drugs: donepezil and memantine. Donepezil is the most commonly prescribed of the dementia drugs and is recommended for patients at the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors are currently advised to stop prescribing donepezil when the disease progresses to become moderate to severe and until now there has been no clear evidence that continuing treatment is of benefit to patients.
Over the course of the trial, patients who continued to take donepezil showed considerably less decline in cognition – memory, orientation, language function – and function (retained ability to carry out simple daily tasks and self-care) than those taking a placebo drug. The benefits seen with continued treatment were clinically important and were greater than those previously seen in patients with less severe Alzheimer’s disease. Whilst the effect was slightly smaller, starting memantine treatment also resulted in significantly better cognitive and functional abilities compared with those taking a placebo.
Donepezil is used to treat dementia (a brain disorder that affects the ability to remember, think clearly, communicate, and perform daily activities and may cause changes in mood and personality) associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD; a brain disease that slowly destroys the memory and the ability to think, learn, communicate and handle daily activities). Donepezil is in a class of medications called cholinesterase inhibitors. It improves mental function (such as memory, attention, social interaction, reasoning and language abilities, and ability to perform activities of daily living) by increasing the amount of a certain naturally occurring substance in the brain. Donepezil may improve the ability to think and remember or slow the loss of these abilities in people who have AD. However, donepezil will not cure AD or prevent the loss of mental abilities at some time in the future.
SIDE EFFECTS: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite/weight loss, dizziness, drowsiness, weakness, trouble sleeping, shakiness (tremor), or muscle cramps may occur as your body adjusts to the drug. These effects usually last 1-3 weeks and then lessen. If any of these effects persist or worsen, notify your doctor or pharmacist promptly.Remember that your doctor has prescribed this medication because he or she has judged that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects. Many people using this medication do not have serious side effects.Tell your doctor right away if any of these serious side effects occur: slow/irregular heartbeat, fainting, trouble urinating, severe stomach/abdominal pain, black stools, vomit that looks like coffee grounds, seizures.A very serious allergic reaction to this drug is rare. However, get medical help right away if you notice any symptoms of a serious allergic reaction, including: rash, itching/swelling (especially of the face/tongue/throat), severe dizziness, trouble breathing.This is not a complete list of possible side effects. If you notice other effects not listed above, contact your doctor or pharmacist.In the US -Call your doctor for medical advice about side effects. You may report side effects to FDA at 1-800-FDA-1088.In Canada – Call your doctor for medical advice about side effects. You may report side effects to Health Canada at 1-866-234-2345.
Professor Robert Howard, lead author from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s says: “As patients progress to more severe forms of Alzheimer’s disease, clinicians are faced with a difficult decision as to whether to continue or not with dementia drugs and, until now, there has been little evidence to guide that decision. For the first time, we have robust and compelling evidence that treatment with these drugs can continue to help patients at the later, more severe stages of the disease. We observed that patients who continued taking donepezil were better able to remember, understand, communicate and perform daily tasks for at least a year longer than those who stopped taking the drugs. These improvements were noticeable to patients, their caregivers and doctors. Both donepezil and memantine will soon be off patent and available in very cheap generic preparations. These findings will greatly increase the numbers of patients in the developed and developing world that we are able to treat.”
Memantine is used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Memantine is in a class of medications called NMDA receptor antagonists. It works by decreasing abnormal activity in the brain. Memantine can help people with Alzheimer’s disease to think more clearly and perform daily activities more easily, but it is not a cure and does not stop the progression of the disease.
Memantine may cause side effects. Tell your doctor if any of these symptoms are severe or do not go away:
pain anywhere in your body, especially your back
Some side effects can be serious. The following symptoms are uncommon, but if you experience any of them, call your doctor immediately:
shortness of breath
hallucination (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist)
Memantine may cause other side effects. Call your doctor if you have any unusual problems while taking this medication.
For the treatment of moderate pain or moderately severe pain including arthralgia, headache, myalgia, dental pain following oral surgery such as extraction of impacted molars or chronic conditions such as low-back pain, bone pain and cancer-related pain.
Maximum Dosage Limits:
- Adults: 100 mg/dose PO or 400 mg/day PO.
- Elderly >= 75 years: 100 mg/dose PO or 300 mg/day PO.
- Elderly 65 – 74 years: 100 mg/dose PO or 400 mg/day PO.
- Adolescents >= 16 years: 100 mg/dose PO or 400 mg/day PO.
- Adolescents 13 – 15 years: Maximum dosage has not been determined.
- Children: Maximum dosage has not been determined.
Professor Nick Fox, MRC Senior Clinical Fellow at the Institute of Neurology, University College London, says: “The number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is reaching critical levels. It has never been more important to invest in research which will enable doctors to make informed decisions based on the best evidence possible when deciding what treatments to give patients. The MRC has an ongoing commitment to the development of effective, safe treatments that will improve the quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their care givers.”
Professor Clive Ballard, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, says: “Thanks to the Alzheimer’s drug donepezil, tens of thousands of people in the early to moderate stages of the condition are able to recognise their family for longer, play with their grandchildren and make vital plans for the future. This major new trial now shows that there could also be significant benefits on continuing the treatment into the later stages too. There are 750,000 people with dementia in the UK yet currently prescription levels of Alzheimer’s drugs are still low. If this is to change we have to improve the shocking diagnosis rates and ensure everyone is given the opportunity to try treatments.”
Early stage Alzheimer’s care preparations
There are some Alzheimer’s care preparations that are best done sooner rather than later. It may be hard to consider these questions at first, as it means thinking about a time when your loved one is already well down the road of his or her Alzheimer’s journey. However, putting preparations in place early helps a smoother transition for everyone. Depending on the stage of diagnosis, include the person with Alzheimer’s in the decision-making process as much as possible. If their dementia is at a more advanced stage, at least try to act on what their wishes would be.
Questions to consider in preparing for Alzheimer’s and dementia care:
Who will make healthcare and/or financial decisions when the person is no longer able to do so? While a difficult topic to bring up, if your loved one is still lucid enough, getting their wishes down on paper means they’ll be preserved and respected by all members of the family. Consider meeting with an elder law attorney to best understand your options. You’ll want to consider power of attorney, both for finances and for healthcare. If the person has already lost capacity, you may need to apply for guardianship/conservatorship. More information can be found in the resources below.
How will care needs be met? Sometimes other family members assume that a spouse or nearest family member can take on caregiving, but that is not always the case. Caregiving is a large commitment that gets bigger over time. The person will eventually need round-the-clock care. Family members may have their own health issues, jobs, and responsibilities to other family members. Communication is essential to make sure that the needs of the Alzheimer’s patient are met, and that the caregiver has the support to meet those needs.
Where will the person live? Is his or her own home appropriate, or is it difficult to access or make safe for later? If the person is currently living alone, for example, or far from any family or other support, it may be necessary to relocate or consider a facility with more support.
Find out what assistance your medical team can provide in these areas. In some countries, you can also hire a care manager privately. Geriatric care managers can provide an initial assessment as well as assistance with managing your case, including crisis management, interviewing in-home help, or assisting with placement in an assisted living facility or nursing home.
The study was sponsored by King’s College London and funded by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) and Alzheimer’s Society. Pfizer-Eisa and Lundbeck donated supplies of drugs but had no involvement in the study design, conduct analyses or reporting.
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Notes to editors
1. Howard et al ‘Donepezil and Memantine for Moderate-to-Severe Alzheimer’s Disease’ is published in New England Journal of Medicine.
2. Researchers followed 295 patients living in London and 14 other UK centres to investigate different drug regimens on patients who had been previously treated with donepezil. The trial was split into four different arms:
(i) continue donepezil;
(ii) stop donepezil and receive a placebo;
(iii) stop donepezil and receive memantine;
(iv) take both donepezil and memantine in combination.
About King’s College London
King’s College London is one of the top 30 universities in the world (2011/12 QS international world rankings), and was The Sunday Times ‘University of the Year 2010/11’, and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King’s has nearly 23,500 students (of whom more than 9,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and some 6,000 employees. King’s is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.
King’s has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £525 million (year ending 31 July 2011).
King’s has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar. It is the largest centre for the education of healthcare professionals in Europe; no university has more Medical Research Council Centres.
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For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer.