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Care homes sedating Alzheimer patients with 'chemical cosh' which could lead to early death

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February 4, 2008

Dangerous drugs are being prescribed to sedate thousands of Alzheimer's sufferers in care homes, campaigners claimed yesterday.

An official inquiry will be told today that the use of the so-called "chemical cosh" has serious side effects and can even lead to premature death.

The campaigners say that dementia patients with behavioural problems are being "killed" to make life easier for staff looking after them.

The antipsychotic drugs at the centre of the claims are not licensed for the treatment of Alzheimer's and instead are prescribed to control agitation, delusions, sleep disturbance and aggression.

Growing concern about the misuse of antipsychotic drugs has led to the inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on dementia.

Typical drugs used for dementia symptoms are Largactil, Serenace, Stelazine and Risperdal, which were originally designed to treat schizophrenia patients.

An estimated 45 per cent of the Alzheimer's sufferers who live in care homes are given the drugs - around 100,000 in all.

Campaigners are concerned that antipsychotic drugs will cause distress to Alzheimer patients rather than helping them.

A long-term study last year showed that patients treated with the medication die on average six months earlier than those who are not.

After three years, only a third of patients taking the drugs were alive compared with two thirds of those not taking them.

The drugs were also linked to a significant deterioration in speaking and thinking abilities.

U.S. research found that antipsychotic drugs trigger strokes, heart disease and falls among dementia patients.

Health Service guidelines allow their use only as a last resort when non-drug methods have failed.

A ban imposed last year on anti-dementia drugs for patients with anything other than moderate symptoms is thought to be behind the increased demand for antipsychotics.

Among those giving evidence at the parliamentary group's two-day inquiry are members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, private care home managers and experts from the Alzheimer's Society.

Neil Hunt, chief executive of the society, said: "Thousands of people with dementia are routinely prescribed dangerous antipsychotic drugs, increasing their chance of death and causing distressing side effects such as excessive sedation, motor problems and dizziness.

"These drugs should only be used as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.

"The all-party parliamentary group inquiry into the use of antipsychotic drugs in care homes is an important step in understanding the scale of this serious problem."

Harriet Millward, deputy chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, said: "We have serious concerns about the long-term use of antipsychotics in people with dementia.

"We want doctors to try to replace these drugs with safer management approaches.

"The latest research funded by the Alzheimer's Research Trust suggests that most patients with Alzheimer's on long-term antipsychotic treatment would benefit from having the drugs withdrawn.

"Disturbingly, people on the drugs were shown to have died on average six months earlier.

The use of so-called 'chemical cosh' treatments for patients with dementia is deeply troubling."

She said antipsychotics should continue only in dementia patients with severe behavioural symptoms which can put the patient and carer at risk.

"We need to develop better treatments - with more research funding we could produce better drugs that are fit for purpose," she added.

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