AARP Takes a Look at the Prescribing of Dementia Drugs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 15, 2018

Last month, the AARP Public Policy Institute released a report, Insight on Issues, 137, that just might be a good read for physicians, medical societies, insurers, even the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), and Congressional lawmakers. According to the report’s findings, dementia drugs are often prescribed long-term despite lack of clinical evidence. Of interest to payers, reducing overuse of dementia drugs could result in substantial savings for patients and payers.

The AARP report findings indicate that a majority (70 percent) of elderly dementia patients prescribed dementia drugs are on them long-term despite the lack of evidence that they provide any benefit beyond one year. The study found that some patients took dementia drugs for as long as a decade, costing as much as $20,000 per patient.

“Our research shows some health care providers continue prescribing dementia drugs to patients for much longer than is supported by the clinical evidence,” said Elizabeth Carter, Senior Health Services Research Advisor, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the study. “Not only do these drugs carry potential side effects, they are costing both patients and the health care system a lot of money,” she says.

With experts predicting a looming Alzheimer’s epidemic, AARP Public Policy researchers saw the need to gather data on the prescription of dementia medications, and the costs associated with the disease currently total more than $270 billion annually and could reach $1.1 trillion by 2050, says Carter. “The efficacy of drug treatment for dementia, however, remains limited and there is little information about how or when to de-prescribe these products. Given the potential for unnecessary costs and potential side effects, we thought that current prescribing patterns warranted a closer look,” adds Carter.

“While there’s a lot of research from clinical trials on the efficacy of dementia drugs, I could find no other study showing the real-world prescribing patterns of these drugs among older adults, notes Carter.

Taking a Closer Look at Prescribing Dementia Drugs

The AARP report takes a look at two types of drugs are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of dementia symptoms: cholinesterase inhibitors (ChEl) (Aricept®, Razadyne®, Exelon®) and memantine (Namenda®, Namenda XR®). Both types may help with symptoms like memory loss and confusion for approximately three to twelve months, but some patients see no improvement.

The AARP report asserts that the benefits of currently-approved dementia drugs are modest and do not affect the underlying cause of the disease or slow the rate of cognitive decline. They also do not delay institutionalization, improve quality of life, or lessen the burden on caregivers. Potential side effects of dementia drugs include low blood pressure and loss of consciousness, abnormally slow heart rate, and hip fracture.

The AARP report noted that claims data from 36,000 Medicare Advantage enrollees who started dementia drug treatment between 2006 and 2015 showed that 58 percent of patients were prescribed a ChEl, 33 percent were prescribed both ChEl and memantine together, and 8 percent were prescribed memantine. The majority (70 percent) of all patients taking dementia drugs were on them for 13 months or longer.

“Older adults typically take multiple medications, often on a long-term basis, and see multiple health care providers without any meaningful oversight of their overall prescription drug regimens,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “These findings really highlight the importance of ensuring that health care providers have access to reliable information to help them reassess medications that may no longer be of benefit, or even cause harm.”

Nursing Home Industry Weighs In

The AARP Study did not differentiate among patients who live in a nursing facility and those who live elsewhere, says Virginia Burke, President of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, representing the state’s nursing and assisted living facilities. She noted that the AARP study used billing records from a single Medicare Advantage plan, to see how frequently and for how long the drugs were purchased for Medicare beneficiaries.

Burke estimates that the percentage of billing records of nursing facility residents to be analyzed by the AARP researchers to be small because about three percent of those age 65 and older are in a facility at any given time – most of these individuals are age 80 and older.

“Keep in mind that nursing facilities don’t prescribe our patient’s medicines, rather we are required by regulation to administer the drugs prescribed by the patient’s physician. Nurses do have the ability to influence prescribing physicians, however, as evidenced by the reductions in use of anti-psychotics and antibiotics over the past few years,” says Burke. .

Changes in prescribing patterns of dementia drugs patterns starts must start with physicians, says Burke. “I expect that physicians might want to see more data, and perhaps a peer-reviewed replicated study, before it has an effect on their prescribing patterns [of dementia drugs],” she adds.

While Carter recognizes the efforts nursing facilities have made to reduce the unnecessary use of antipsychotic drugs on residents with dementia, there is still more work to do. “I’ve also heard anecdotal reports that some nursing homes are finding ways to skirt the problem by either replacing antipsychotics with other mood-altering drugs or diagnosing residents with conditions, such as bipolar or schizophrenia, that would justify the use of antipsychotics,” she says.

Carter says that AARP is planning to get the word out about their dementia drug prescription study through a partnership with OptumLabs to disseminate the findings to larger audiences, including physicians. “This type of potential overutilization is hardly unique to dementia drugs so we may look at the use of other prescription drugs in a follow-up study,” she says.

Physicians have other options to treat residents with dementia in nursing facilities, adds Carter. “There’s evidence supporting the use of non-pharmacological treatments such as environmental modification and cognitive behavioral therapy,” she says.

CMS Must Take Notice

CMS, the federal agency that oversees the Medicare program and insurers might consider taking a closer look at studies that look at the appropriate use and cost of the long-term prescribing dementia drugs. France’s health system did, says Carter, noting that “They will no longer reimburse for dementia drugs we studied (donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine and memantine) as of August 2018,” she adds.

But, taking a closer look at the appropriate use, effectiveness and cost of long-term prescribing of dementia, might be a good strategy for Congress to put the brakes on the skyrocketing cost of pharmaceutical drugs.

Carter and Purvis, coauthors of this AARP report, conclude their study by urging health care providers to “regularly assess patients and their drug regimens to ensure these regimens remain appropriate reflecting the changing health status and needs of the patient.” They suggest more research can provide “up-to-date information on a drug’s effectiveness and side-effects that essentially can help increase the practice of de-prescribing medications that may no longer be of benefit, or even cause harm.”

This is sound advice to consider.

For details about AARP’s dementia drug study, go to


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