Thousands of Alzheimer’s victims ‘could benefit from two key drugs’

Author Sir Terry Pratchett
Author Sir Terry Pratchett
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HUNDREDS of thousands more people in the UK with Alzheimer’s disease could benefit from two key drugs, research suggests.

Experts found that memantine and in particular donepezil could help to ease symptoms in the later stages of the disease, not just earlier on.

Donepezil, which is the most commonly used dementia drug in the UK, is currently approved for use on the NHS for mild to moderate stages of the disease.

It works by increasing the amount of a neurotransmitter involved in memory and attention in the brain.

Prof Clive Ballard, director of research for the Alzheimer’s Society, which co-funded the new study, said around 50,000 people in the UK are thought to be on the drugs – only 10 per cent of all people with Alzheimer’s.

“This research – if acted upon – has the potential to change the lives of up to 450,000 more people today and many more in the future. It could mean many more people being able to stay on the drugs or accessing the drugs. It also adds vital weight to the argument that a diagnosis of dementia is essential.

“Only then can people be given the opportunity to try these drugs, which could bring real benefits into the later stages of the disease.”

Only about 41 per cent of people with dementia currently have a diagnosis.

The research has been published as the Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) Conference takes place in London with experts in dementia research, author Sir Terry Pratchett and Care Services Minister Paul Burstow attending.

Global health expert Prof Peter Piot has told the event that dementia needs to become a top world health priority.

The new Alzheimer’s research involved 295 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease who had been taking donepezil for at least three months, and were about to move towards the severe end of the disease.

They were split into four groups. The first continued taking donepezil, the second continued with donepezil and started taking memantine, while the third were taken off donepezil but started taking memantine. The fourth group were given two dummy drugs and acted as controls.

Over the course of a year, each person’s mental abilities were tested through a range of questions, including recalling what time of year, season, date, day and month it was.

Patients were given language and writing tests and functioning ability was also measured, with scores given for how patients managed tasks such as eating, drinking, dressing, brushing teeth, taking a bath or shower and using a toilet.

The findings showed there was a significant benefit from using both drugs when it came to mental ability and functioning into the later stages of the disease.

Prof Robert Howard, lead author on the study, from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said donepezil in particular made a real difference to patients and their carers.

Donepezil, which is commonly known by the brand name Aricept, is now available in generic form and costs around £11.97 per patient per month.

Memantine, which is approved for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s, will become a cheaper generic drug once the patent for Ebixa expires.

As of March 2011, Nice listed the cost of the drug as £34.50 a month, but this is expected to fall once it comes off patent.