Alzheimer’s Disease can be devastating, and it is poised to become one of the most important health concerns of this century. As the population ages, more and more people will experience AD or another form of dementia. That’s why it is so important to find ways to care for people with this disease and save money on the cost of that care. Otherwise, it won’t be possible to give everyone the best treatment.
Some recent research has led to an interesting conclusion. When some patients with AD take drugs that are meant to alleviate the symptoms of the disease, they live longer and pay less on a monthly basis for their medical care. This is a surprising result because these drugs do not have any effect on the progression of the disease itself. They only make the symptoms less strong. This is similar to cold medication: it will help you with the coughs and sniffles, but it does not actually make your cold go away any faster. That means there is no reason for anyone who takes these drugs to live longer, because it is not the medicine that is making a difference.
The research team found that the key was the fact that patients who got the drugs were benefiting from the attention of more attentive doctors and caregivers. Because these drugs cannot halt the advance of Alzheimer’s, only make the person and their caregivers more comfortable by giving them symptom relief and tips for going to sleep, the patients who got those drugs were more likely have caring people around them who put their well-being first. Patients who did not get these drugs might not have had someone around them who had the time to put energy into their comfort. This might have been the case, for example, if the patient did not have family support.
What this adds up to mean is not that Alzheimer’s drugs are a waste of time, but that personal attention and dedicated care are critical to successfully reducing the cost of treatment. This is a change from how the medical world viewed Alzheimer’s. It used to be the case that personalized care and attention was nice to have, but too expensive to offer to anyone who got AD. This new research changes things. This is because having good care and support means that the patient is less likely to get secondary diseases and infections that make them sick.
That last part is a big element in how people with AD and other advanced, debilitating illnesses eventually die. It might not be the “main” disease that kills them, but something else that came along in the meantime. Due to a weakened immune system, masked symptoms, or some other interaction, these secondary illnesses become more deadly than usual. However, a close-knit support network and close care oversight reduces the chances that these secondary diseases will be fatal because there are more people keeping an eye on the patient. That means more frequent testing, more familiarity with their baseline health, and more expertise.
This reverses the traditional narrative about degenerative diseases like AD. These are viewed as drains on the health care system because hospitals and nursing homes need to spend time and energy caring for someone with an incurable disease. This effort is “wasted” because no amount of care can cure AD. However, it turns out that good care, including tips for going to sleep and social support, actually makes it cheaper to care for Alzheimer’s patients and they will enjoy a longer lifespan, showing that the care has a real effect. The implication is that people with AD should get as much care and attention as anyone else, because it can translate into more efficient care and a better quality of life over a longer lifespan. It is not yet clear what the right level of investment in care is, but this certainly implies that it is a good idea to monitor the health of AD patients closely and provide them with a higher level of care than some facilities currently do.