Oct 142008
 

Why take medication for Alzheimer’s when they don’t work?

I’ve heard this question too many times to count. My answer has always been anecdotal, second-hand:

But they do!

Finally, we have a scientific answer confirming what I’ve suspected and witnessed. Dr. Alireza Atri and his colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital published the first long-term study of the real-world use of cholinesterase inhibitors, like Aricept, and Namenda in the July/September issue of Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders. They found that patients taking BOTH Aricept and Namenda declined less than patients taking only Aricept and even less than patients taking no medication.

Did these patients still decline? Yes.

Is this combination therapy a cure? No.

If you have Alzheimer’s, is it worth getting on BOTH medications as soon as possible? According to the results of this study and what my friend Bill says, Yes.

Bill: My doctor referred me to a psychiatrist, and he immediately put me on Aricept and Nameda.

Me: How did he figure out you had Alzheimer’s?

Bill: He didn’t. He said to me, ‘I’m going to do one thing. You’ve been working on this thing for four months. Your doctor doesn’t know what it is. I have no idea what it is. But I’m going to put you on two medications. If in fact you have Alzheimer’s, and we confirm that a year from now, because it’ll take that long, you’ll have already been on the medication. If we don’t put you on the medication, you’ll have lost all of that cognitive ability, and you’ll never get it back.

It’s different today, with the medications we have. When my Dad had this, when they finally found out what was going on, it was, Make him as comfortable as you can. There were no ways of medically caring for these people then. If anything, they were sedated, to make them less…less…less…ahh”

Me: Agitated?

My stomach sinks as soon as I hear myself offer the word, and I hold my breath. Whenever I encounter someone with Alzheimer’s struggling to find a word, I have to work to keep myself from becoming an enthusiastic guesser in a game of Charades. My instinct is to jump in and make a stab at it. But if the word I suggest isn’t the right word, then my interruption might derail his train of thought entirely. Luckily, I picked the right one.

Bill: Yes, thanks, agitated. He said to me, ‘You’re just too young to give up on.’ So what this doctor did in good faith, putting me on these two medications, turned out to be a God send for us. And I don’t think that’s happenstance. I think things work for a purpose. It took me about eight months to get in to see the neurologist I needed to see. I took the neuropsych testing twice, for two days. That confirmed it.

Me: What went through your head when you were told you had Alzheimer’s Disease?

Bill: I was relieved. I’d been searching for so long. What started out as a four-month journey turned out to be an eighteen-month odyssey. I was relieved. I’ve never been angry, never been afraid. Now there are people who are angry, who are in denial, who are frustrated and feel a stigma associated with it. There are many people in my support group who are angry. Anger, in denial, frustrated, scared. I am none of those. I’ll be the first one out saying I’ve got Alzheimer’s. It is a disease I have. It is not who I am.

Lisa Genova, Ph.D., author of Still Alice, www.StillAlice.com

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