Clinical trials represent future hope for patients seeking better care, and there is no disease more in need of better care than Alzheimer’s disease. While death rates among most cancers, as well as heart disease, HIV-related illness, and other categories, have declined in the past decade, there has been no progress for Alzheimer’s disease. Better health and wellness overall may be having a beneficial effect that has produced a reduction in age-adjusted dementia rates, but with the aging of the population there are a greater absolute number of dementia cases than ever before, and that number is expected to continue rising. Finding a disease-modifying therapy seems to be the best hope for changing this dim outlook. Clinical trials intend to do just that but are hampered by patient enrollment rates that remain low. Far fewer eligible patients enroll than are needed, causing studies to take longer to complete, driving up their costs and essentially slowing progress. There is a need to increase patient enrollment, and there has been a variety of efforts intended to address this, not the least of which has been an explosion of media coverage of Alzheimer’s disease.
The, a nonprofit, self-described patient-centric entity dedicated to reducing the time and cost of Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials, recently to increase participation in Alzheimer’s clinical trials by supporting and collaborating with “memory fitness programs” through select Medicare Advantage plans. At worst, this seems a harmless way to increase attention and hopefully interest in clinical trial participation. At best, this may be a cost-effective way to increase enrollment and even improve dementia care. Dementia is notoriously underdiagnosed, especially by overworked, busy primary care providers who simply lack the time to perform the time-consuming testing that is typically required to diagnose and follow such patients.
There are some caveats to consider. First, memory fitness programs are of dubious benefit. They generally fit the description of being harmless, but there is little compelling evidence that they preserve or improve memory.
Second, enrollment in a clinical trial, for a patient, is not always a winning proposition. To date, there has been little success and in the absence of benefit, any downside – even if simply an inconvenience – is a net negative. Recently at the 2018 Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease meeting, Merckthat patients with mild cognitive impairment receiving active treatment in the BACE1 inhibitor verubecestat actually declined at a more rapid rate than did those on placebo. While the absolute difference was small, and one could argue whether it was clinically significant or simply a random occurrence, it was a reminder that intervention with an experimental agent is not necessarily benign.
Third, Medicare Advantage plans, while popular in some circles, are not considered advantageous to providers so that the proliferation of inadequate reimbursement will potentially fuel the accelerating number of providers who opt out of insurance plans altogether. This is not necessarily an issue for the GAP Foundation specifically but is nonetheless an issue for anything that promotes MA plans).
Finally, it remains important to help patients and families maintain a positive outlook, especially when we have nothing better to offer. Alzheimer’s disease is not a death sentence for every patient affected. While many have difficult and heartbreaking courses, some have slowly progressive courses with relatively little impairment for an extended period of time. There are also the dementia-phobic, cognitively unimpaired individuals (or who simply have normal age-associated cognitive changes) in whom the continued drumbeat of dementia awareness and memory testing raises their paranoia ever higher. We treat deficits (or try to), but we have to live based on our preserved skills. The challenge clinicians must face with patients and families is how to maximize function while compensating for deficits and making sure that patients and families maintain their hope.
is professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic Arizona in Scottsdale and associate director and clinical core director of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Disease Center.