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Drugs used to treat Alzheimer's disease may result in harmful weight loss, research shows

Published 3 August 2015

Drugs commonly used to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, called cholinesterase inhibitors, could result in harmful weight loss, according to new research.

The research was published online in the August edition of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The study used figures from previous research to evaluate patients aged 65 or older diagnosed with dementia who received a new prescription for a cholinesterase inhibitor or other new chronic medication.

After a year of usage Meera Sheffrin, MD et al, found that nearly a third (29%) of patients on the inhibitors experienced significant weight loss. Results showed that patients who started on the medications had a higher risk of clinically significant weight loss over a 12 month period. Figures from controlled trials suggest that weight loss could be an under-recognised side effect of cholinesterase inhibitors, but the evidence remains inconclusive.

James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer's Society said:

'With any treatment it's important to weigh up the benefits compared to the side effects. Cholinesterase inhibitors are helpful to thousands of people with Alzheimer's disease in managing their symptoms, such as anxiety and concentration, and can improve their ability to continue daily activities. Treatments for Alzheimer's are extremely limited however, and we desperately need more effective drugs.   

'Unexplained weight loss can be serious so it is important that this kind of research is done so that doctors can be vigilant regarding the potential causes. If someone is losing weight and does not know why, they should consult their doctor immediately. More research including a more representative group of people with dementia would be welcome to validate these findings.'

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Notes to editors:

  • 225,000 will develop dementia this year, that's one every three minutes
  • Alzheimer's Society research shows that 850,000 people in the UK have a form of dementia. In less than ten years a million people will be living with dementia. This will soar to two million people by 2051
  • Dementia costs the UK economy over £26 Billion per year. This is the equivalent of more than £30,000 per person with dementia. 
  • Alzheimer's Society champions the rights of people living with dementia and the millions of people who care for them 
  • Alzheimer's Society works in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • Alzheimer's Society supports people to live well with dementia today and funds research to find a cure for tomorrow. We rely on voluntary donations to continue our vital work. You can donate now by calling 0845 306 0898 or visiting alzheimers.org.uk
  • Alzheimer's Society provides a National Dementia Helpline, the number is 0300 222 11 22 or visit alzheimers.org.uk