By Claire Newell and Steven Swinford
WHEN David Ramsay, a former senior consultant at Guy’s hospital in London, was diagnosed with dementia in 1998, his wife fought for three years to have him taken into full-time care.
But just months after winning her battle, David’s neck twisted by 90 degrees, leaving his chin permanently fixed to his chest and forcing him to spend the rest of his life staring at the ground.
His condition, a rare neurological disorder, was a side-effect of a powerful antipsychotic drug prescribed to control the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. According to a parliamentary report, to be published later this month, his case is far from isolated.
The report, by the all party parliamentary group on dementia, has found that elderly people are routinely being prescribed antipsychotic drugs to make the lives of carers easier, despite evidence that they are of little benefit to the patient and have potentially lethal side effects.
Jeremy Wright MP, the Conservative chairman of the group, said: “It is clear that there are many occasions when these drugs are being used as a method of chemical restraint. This is undoubtedly systematic abuse.”
The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that antipsychotic drugs are being prescribed to 105,000 elderly people with dementia in Britain, and that in two-thirds of cases the drugs are unnecessary. Studies show they can increase the risk of strokes and have other side effects, such as the disorder suffered by Ramsay.
According to his family, Ramsay was given Olanzapine (Zyprexa) in October 2001 without their knowledge. When he refused to take the drug his carers allegedly ground the pills into powder to put in his yoghurt. He developed tardive dystonia, which twisted his neck, in April 2002.
Ramsay was taken off the drugs and moved to a specialist nursing home, where he died in September 2006, aged 63. At his funeral in St Mary’s Church in Chislehurst, Kent, mourners were presented with two images of David, one as a healthy 50-year-old, looking proudly ahead, the other with his head twisted at a 90-degree angle.
Lynne, his wife, said: “I wanted everyone to appreciate how people with dementia are treated and the massive impact these drugs had on David’s life.”
The all party report will recommend improved training for carers, better consultation for family and friends and a three-monthly review of medication for care home residents.
A spokesman for the Oxleas Foundation NHS Trust, which prescribed Ramsay the antipsychotic drug, said Ramsay knowingly agreed to take Olanzapine. The trust claims the drug improved his mental health, and added that the medication had been approved by a clinical director from another NHS trust.
Eli-Lilly, the manufacturer of Olanzapine, said the side effect suffered by Ramsay was “very rare” and the drug was neither licensed nor promoted in the UK to treat patients with dementia.