NEW ORLEANS – A reasonable stepwise approach to pharmacotherapy for agitation in outpatient dementia begins with a judiciously chosen SSRI as first-line therapy, with the second-line consisting of augmentation with a benzodiazepine, M. Philip Luber, MD, said at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians.
If this combination doesn’t provide satisfactory improvement after adequate dosing for sufficient duration, only then is it time to turn to an atypical antipsychotic agent as a higher-risk/higher-reward third-line therapy, added, professor of psychiatry and associate dean for graduate medical education at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
He emphasized, however, that medications are not the first-line therapy for agitation in outpatients with dementia. That distinction belongs to psychosocial interventions.
“Utilize a social worker to assist the family in modifying the environment: family settings and people, regular routines, consistently orienting the patient, keeping stimulation at a low to moderate level. When that’s done right, it can really dampen down a lot of agitation,” he said.
Dr. Luber noted that the formal randomized trial evidence base for SSRIs as first-line pharmacotherapy and benzodiazepines as second-line is quite limited. But in conversations with geriatric psychiatrists and other health care professionals around the country who are working in this area, he has found broad agreement that this is a good strategy.
“A lot of folks don’t realize that [SSRIs] are actually very useful in the treatment of agitation in dementia. But you want to choose one with fewer side effects and drug-drug interactions,” Dr. Luber said.
Two SSRIs that fit the bill are escitalopram (Lexapro) and sertraline (Zoloft). Start low and increase the dose slowly, provided circumstances allow. Expect a therapeutic response to emerge in weeks, not days. And, in this elderly population, be sure to monitor for hyponatremia.