Study Finds No Effective Pharmaceutical Treatment for Dementia
> 3/7/2008 2:06:38 PM

Dementia is a nebulous collection of progressive neurological disabilities that may be either a condition unto itself or evidence of a larger disease like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. It is also, unfortunately, one of the most common and least treatable conditions affecting senior citizens. Symptoms are irreversible in almost all cases, and their incidence continues to rise as humans live consistently longer lives. Despite thousands of dementia-related prescriptions issued every year, new research states that no medications have been proven particularly effective in its treatment and that the benefits of personal therapy are often marginal at best.

In the most general sense, dementia is a state of gradual cognitive decline most often occurring near the end of one's life. It can affect far younger patients due to independent conditions, but age is by far the most common determining factor. As a statistical measure of its influence, an estimated 6% of individuals aged 75-79 and 45% of those 95 and older suffer from some degree of dementia. Initial symptoms may be minor and their rate of progression varies widely, but dementia eventually affects a majority of elderly individuals, and its potential causes are numerous: stroke, traumatic head/brain injury, infectious and genetic neurological conditions, longtime substance abuse, meningitis, advanced HIV/AIDS, etc. Higher cognitive functions such as complex problem solving are among the first to bear dementia's effect. Patients may find that tasks that were previously performed quite naturally have become extremely difficult. This change in cognition often prompts anger and frustration. Sense of time and place and all forms of linear memory are inevitably compromised, and patients in the syndrome's later stages often have trouble recognizing loved ones or even acknowledging their own identities.

In the most recent clinical development relating to dementia, researchers compiled the results of studies testing the five medications most commonly prescribed to affected patients and found that, apart from some individual exceptions to the rule, none of these drugs prove successful in improving patients' symptoms. Researchers argue that the most successful approach may very well be trying all potentially relevant drugs, alone and in combination, and determining which ones lead to even slight symptomatic relief. This is by no means an encouraging suggestion.

One contrasting longitudinal study that tracked the mental functions of nearly 15,000 adults over an entire decade implies that elderly adults in the present day who are healthier, wealthier and better educated than their predecessors actually face a lower risk of developing dementia. These suggestions are hardly subjective and, even if true, such trends will probably not be large enough to counteract the dramatically increasing average age of the world population as improvements in medicine allow us to live longer and longer. But it lends greater credence to the belief that active lifestyles (physical, social and intellectual) often forestall the development of disabling conditions like depression, dementia and even (possibly) some forms of cancer and heart disease. Even if the relationship is only coincidental, encouraging seniors to maintain active schedules and minds can never be a bad thing.

As with all mental health complications, early intervention is recommended. Dementia tests are relatively easy to come by and should be administered in order to distinguish serious cases of dementia from the momentary delirium or periodic sense of confusion common to many elderly individuals. The fact that prominent medications are less effective than advertised is hardly reason to bypass treatment altogether, and any form of treatment stands a greater chance of success when symptoms are detected in their early stages.

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