Dementia relief, with a huge side effect
The off-label use of some drugs is helping elderly patients, but may be killing thousands.
November 18, 2007
Two years ago, federal regulators sounded a dire warning: Elderly people with dementia who take drugs like Seroquel, Risperdal and Zyprexa could suffer the ultimate side effect.
They could die.
Yet today, about one in four nursing home residents still take these antipsychotic drugs. Sales to the elderly continue to rise, generating a total of $13-billion in revenues for their manufacturers this year.
The disconnect between government warnings about the increased risk of death and physician prescribing practices led a prominent Food and Drug Administration safety expert to make a stunning estimate.
Dr. David Graham, who had blown the whistle on the dangers of Vioxx, was back before a congressional panel in February. He testified that Zyprexa and other antipsychotics kill about 15,000 nursing home residents each year.
His pronouncement did not spark any followup investigations; it did not prompt government-sponsored research for safer alternatives. Instead, there was resounding silence.
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Why was there no outrage?
Barbara Hengstebeck, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Coalition to Protect America's Elders, thinks she knows.
"A lot of people feel like the elderly in nursing homes are expendable," she said. "They're old anyway, they have dementia anyway, they're of no value to society. So what's the big deal? That's a sad commentary."