This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.
This follow up study examined whether the drugs donepezil or memantine affected the chance that people with Alzheimer’s disease could continue to live in the community, rather than move permanently to a nursing home. One or both of the drugs was taken for a year and then participants could have any treatment thereafter.
The study found that stopping donepezil doubled the risk of going into a nursing home up to a year afterwards, compared with continuing to take donepezil. However, there was no difference over the subsequent three years. Memantine did not affect the risk.
By four years from the start of the trial, the likelihood of having moved into a nursing home was the same for people on all the drug treatment regimens. This was an exploratory study with some limitations, but it shows that donepezil may have the potential to slow down worsening of symptoms and save care costs.
Why was this study needed?
Dementia affects 850,000 people in the UK, at a cost of over £26 billion per year, mainly to unpaid carers, health services and social services. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia affecting 553,000 people. Symptoms include worsening memory loss, difficulty thinking and carrying out everyday activities and deteriorating behaviour.
Whether a person can continue to live in the community depends on many factors such as availability and age of family carers. Moving to a more dependent setting, such as a nursing home, is often triggered by worsening symptoms, particularly behaviour.
Donezepil is commonly prescribed for mild to moderate dementia, although as with other dementia drugs, it makes a small difference to the symptoms. It is available as a relatively cheap, generic drug which is often stopped in the later stages of dementia or if symptoms do not improve.
A previous randomised controlled trial did not find that donepezil could delay admission to a nursing home for people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
This was the first randomised controlled trial and follow up study to see whether drug treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease could delay permanently moving into a nursing home.
What did this study do?
This was a follow up study from the DOMINO-AD trial of 295 people living in the community with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease who were already taking donepezil. In the original study people were recruited into the trial from 15 memory clinics in England and Scotland.
The participants were randomly allocated to one of the following four treatment regimens for one year:
- stop taking donepezil and start taking placebo memantine,
- stop taking donepezil and start taking active memantine,
- continue taking donepezil and start taking placebo memantine,
- continue taking donepezil and start taking active memantine.
After one year, treatment was left to the choice of participants and their doctors.
The original DOMINO-AD trial was set up to investigate changes in brain functioning after receiving one of these treatments for a year. This follow-up analysis of the DOMINO-AD trial looked at the secondary outcome of permanently moving into a nursing home over the next four years. Analysis of the risk during the first year of the trial was not planned at the trial’s outset, which limits the reliability of these results.
What did it find?
- By four years after the trial’s start, 55% of the participants had moved into a nursing home, with similar rates for each of the four groups. This exploratory study was too small to analyse risk of nursing home placement by different levels of symptom severity.
- Whether participants took active memantine or placebo did not affect the risk of nursing home placement at any time up to four years.
- Participants who discontinued donepezil in the first year had double the risk of moving into a nursing home by the end of that year than those who continued to take donepezil (hazard ratio 2.09, 95% confidence interval 1.29 to 3.39). However, discontinuation did not affect the risk over the four year study period.
- The participants in each group had similar characteristics and stage of disease at the beginning of the trial, but we don’t know what medication they took in the last three years of the study. The authors considered that the overall trial design was representative of usual care.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
NICE 2011 guidance recommends donepezil (or one of the related acetyl cholinesterase inhibitors, galantamine or rivastigmine) as a medical option to treat cognitive symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, provided symptoms improve during treatment. However, the guidance states that donepezil brings only modest benefits, and that treatment could be stopped if not leading to improved symptoms and ability to carry out activities of daily life. This means that donepezil is not recommended for people in the more severe stages of the disease. In contrast, this study did use donepezil to treat people with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease and found benefit in terms of reduced risk of moving into a nursing home, though the results should be viewed with caution.
What are the implications?
People with Alzheimer’s disease live an average of seven years after diagnosis. Receiving residential care is much more costly than living in the community, but moving to residential care is highly likely for people who already have moderate or severe disease. Delaying this move could save significant health and social care costs and potentially improve quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
NICE guidelines currently suggest that people with severe Alzheimer’s disease do not benefit from taking donepezil. The study had some limitations and its findings are modest and exploratory at present. However, as the first randomised controlled trial of treatment for people with later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, it may suggest that prescribers could be more cautious when considering stopping the drug in patients who are on established treatment.
Howard R, McShane R, Lindesay J, et al. Nursing home placement in the Donepezil and Memantine in Moderate to Severe Alzheimer's Disease (DOMINO-AD) trial: secondary and post-hoc analyses. Lancet Neurol. 2015;14(12):1171-81.
Funded by MRC and the UK Alzheimer’s Society, and managed by NIHR on behalf of the MRC-NIHR partnership.
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