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Dementia: Ethical Issues - New Medications

symptoms disease progression cognitive

Medical science is likely to develop treatments for Alzheimer's disease and other causes of dementia that slow the progression of the disease. Patients, while competent, and surrogates will need to reflect carefully on the ethics of altering the course of progressive dementia. It is difficult to imagine that any reasonable person would want his or her disease progression slowed in the advanced stage, which is replete with severe dysfunction. Most, it can be assumed, would prefer a comfortable death in a hospice-like setting of palliative care. A drug to slow progression would, however, be most welcome prior to onset of symptoms, or in the mild and even moderate stages, in order to avoid the indignities of advanced dementia (Post, 2000). The ethical maxim is this: prevent or delay onset of symptoms, mitigate symptoms insofar as possible, but never purposefully prolong life in the advance stage of severe dysfunction.

As for the cognitive enhancing drugs, which do not slow the progression of dementia but mitigate some symptoms for limited periods of time, the absence of clear data on outcomes necessitates caution when addressing the ethical implications. Some major ethical quandaries are, however, identifiable. The introduction of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors for treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease is, on the one hand, promising. There is anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness: a mildly demented woman insisted that, with the help of donepezil, she can now find her words; a woman who was too forgetful to cook anymore regained sufficient memory to begin cooking again in relative safety. But patients and caregivers who have already navigated certain crises of cognitive decline may have to repeat the process. The individual who has lost insight into his or her losses may regain insight, along with renewed anxiety. New cognitive enhancing compounds should not be prescribed without attention to individual cases. Each patient's response must be carefully monitored with regard to quality of life. Every caregiver should know that the use of these compounds is a deeply personal and value-laden decision requiring the careful exercise of compassion and good judgment. There is nothing wrong with withdrawing an antidementia treatment that does not seem to have a positive result. Modest improvement or temporary stabilization of cognitive decline will be viewed by some caregivers as gratifying—but certainly not by all.

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