A class of drugs commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis could halve the risk of developing dementia, according to an observational study by UK researchers.
The team from the University of Southampton and Oxford University analysed the records of more than 5,800 patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
“This study shows a positive link between patients taking drugs to treat arthritis and reducing their risk of developing dementia”
Of these, 3,876 patients took disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), particularly methotrexate, while 1,938 patients did not.
The findings, published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions, found those on DMARDs had around half the risk of developing dementia.
The researchers said they observed a reduced risk of dementia in DMARD users versus non-users was 0.5% versus 1.6% after five years and 1.5% versus 3.0% after 15 years.
In other words, the researchers found that 3% of people who were not taking DMARDs developed dementia over the 15 years of the study, but people who were taking DMARDs had about half the risk, with only 1.5% developing dementia in the same time period.
Overall, they concluded there was a “strong reduction in the risk of dementia” for DMARD users, with the “effect being strongest” in methotrexate users versus non- methotrexate users.
“Drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and reduce inflammation may also be beneficial for patients with other diseases”
The researchers noted that rheumatoid arthritis developed when the immune system attacked cells lining the joints and could also affect other parts of the body, including the lungs, heart and eyes.
As inflammation was a “characteristic feature” of many other illnesses, including dementia, drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis may also be beneficial for treating Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions, noted senior study author Professor Chris Edwards, from the University of Southampton.
“This has already been shown to be the case for treating patients with heart disease, where initial promising results are now being further investigated in large clinical trials,” he said.
Professor Edwards, also a consultant rheumatologist at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, said the finding indicated DMARDs could provide a potential new dementia treatment.
“Although there is medication available that can temporarily reduce some symptoms or slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, there is currently no cure for the condition,” he highlighted.
Rheumatoid arthritis drugs could play role in reducing dementia risk
“This study shows a positive link between patients taking drugs to treat arthritis and reducing their risk of developing dementia – potentially by up to 50%,” said Professor Edwards.
“The results we’ve seen make us optimistic that we are getting closer to better treating this neurological disease and supports further investigation in clinical trials to confirm if these drugs can be used to prevent or treat dementia,” he added.
Southampton University researchers, along with a team at Queen’s University Belfast, have now been awarded £400,000 by the Alzheimer’s Society to continue their research.
The charity noted that the new findings suggested DMARDs may reduce dementia risk, “but as it was an observational study, not a clinical trial, further research is needed before we can draw any firm conclusions”.
Its head of research Dr James Pickett said: ”It’s vital to explore whether drugs developed for other conditions also have benefits for dementia, as it could make it much quicker to get new drugs to the people who desperately need them.
“Alzheimer’s Society is prioritising this approach to research and currently funding a study to see whether arthritis drugs can boost memory and reduce dementia risk,” he added.