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Treatment Without Numbers

I know a widely-respected neurologist at a prestigious, teaching hospital who once said,

“Treating dementia is like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.”

And he’s not alone in the medical community with this philosophy. I’ve heard many stories of doctors, both neurologists and general practice physicians, who are reluctant to prescribe treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease. They believe that the current drugs available don’t make a difference. They believe the current drugs are not cost effective.

Aricept and Namenda do not cure Alzheimer’s. They do not stop the progression of the disease. The cognitive capabilities of everyone who has Alzheimer’s Disease will get worse despite taking these medications. No one gets out of Alzheimer’s alive.

But what about quality of life? What about the value of making each day a little less foggy, less frustrating, less isolated, less stressful for as long as possible? What about living as fully as possible with whatever time you have?

Do doctors not bother to prescribe calcium channel blockers or statins to elderly patients with heart disease because they’re likely going to die soon anyway? Are patients with cancer denied surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation if it’s known that these treatments will only buy time before the cancer ultimately kills them?

In the diagnosis and treatment of any patient, doctors have been trained to measure and quantify. Cholesterol levels are measured. There is a number. Blood pressure is taken. There’s another number. Patients are given medication, and doctors look to these numbers to evaluate whether the treatment is working. The number changed. The treatment worked.

There is no dementia protein that can be measured in the blood. There is often nothing visible in a brain scan. There is no number physicians can point to that can measure discrete changes in cognition. A doctor can’t put a patient with Alzheimer’s on Aricept or Namenda and then in six months say, “Things look great. We see a 25% decline in the accumulation of amyloid beta in your brain.” Or, “Wonderful. Your glutamatergic neurotransmission is up significantly.”

But just because there’s no numerical index of biological improvement that can currently be measured, it doesn’t mean the improvement isn’t there.

We’re all on the Titanic. We’re all going to die. For those of you with Alzheimer’s disease who are taking an Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitor (Aricept, Exelon, Reminyl) and/or Namenda, do you feel like you’re just pointlessly rearranging the deck chairs?

Tell us what you notice about your capabilities and mental health while on these medications. What value do these drugs have for you? Caregivers, tell us what you notice.

What do we know without knowing any numbers?

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