Warning On Drugs For Alzheimer’s Patients In Nursing Homes

The “chemical cosh” antipsychotic drugs that are widely prescribed for people with Alzheimer’s disease in nursing homes do more harm than good, according to a study published today.

Around 60% of nursing home Alzheimer’s patients are given antipsychotics such as risperidone to calm – and some say to contain – their behaviour. But the drugs, also known as neuroleptics, have severe side-effects, which include strokes and even death.

The study, funded by the Alzheimer’s Research Trust and published in the open access journal Public Library of Science Medicine, found that long-term use of the drugs led to significant deterioration in the thinking and verbal skills of patients. For most patients, the drugs had no long-term benefit at all.

“It is very clear that even over a six-month period of treatment, there is no benefit from neuroleptics in treating the behaviour in people with Alzheimer’s disease when the symptoms are mild,” said Clive Ballard, professor of age-related disorders at King’s College London and lead author. “For people with more severe behavioural symptoms, balancing the potential benefits against adverse effects is more difficult, but this study provides an important evidence base to inform this decision-making process.”

Rebecca Woods, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said the study showed the need for more and better drugs for a distressing disease. “These results are deeply troubling and highlight the urgent need to develop better treatments. [Some] 700,000 people are affected by dementia in the UK, a figure that will double in the next 30 years. The government needs to make Alzheimer’s research funding a priority,” she said.

The study is the largest and longest-lasting of its kind and unusual in that it was funded by a charity: the vast majority of drug trials are funded by the manufacturers.