It’s hard to say, mostly because Alzheimer’s disease is a “moving target” as far as how quickly it can progress.
Rather than stop the clock from ticking, “what these drugs do is more like turning the clock back, than waiting as the clock keeps ticking at a normal pace,” explained Dr. William Klunk, chair of the medical and scientific advisory council of the Alzheimer’s Association.
While the medications may prove mildly effective to many people in the short term, with some people reporting that they may feel like themselves again after going on the meds, time can blunt the effects.
“When patients continue to decline after weeks or months, they may decline to the point where they were when they first started using the drug,” Klunk said.
It’s also very difficult to measure the effectiveness of Namenda (an NMDA receptor antagonist), which is often prescribed in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, due to the severity of the disease’s progression, Netzer added.
“People at that stage usually can’t speak, but it may make them a little calmer, a little less confused,” he said.
Whether a dementia patient is in his or her 90s doesn’t matter so much as the stage of the disease, and even mild success with the drugs can be considered to be a form of palliative care if it improves quality of life, Netzer argued.
Are There Potential Drawbacks?
Cholinesterase inhibitors can sometimes induce nausea or cause diarrhea. They may also cause vivid dreams. Netzer warned that if pronounced side effects occur or become chronic conditions or cause too much anxiety, it could result in a “catastrophic decline” in an Alzheimer’s patient’s well-being because stress can exacerbate the disease. At that point, it may be wiser to stop medicating.
Matt Kwong is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia, and Toronto, Ontario
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