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Do Drug-Free Options Offer Fresh Hope?

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A "drug-free therapy" helps slow the expected decline of people diagnosed with dementia, a study has found.

The therapy enabled sufferers to maintain "cognitive function" and the ability to carry out normal activities like gardening and preparing a meal, according to researchers from the German University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

Those not receiving the therapy deteriorated in both respects.

While urging further investment "to find treatments that could stop the condition", Dr Marie Janson, of Alzheimer's Research UK said: "It's believed that cognitive stimulation can be an effective method of helping people cope with the symptoms of mild to moderate dementia, and this research is a useful reminder that there are non-drug treatments for the condition."

It is always heartening to hear of anything that can help alleviate the experience of those facing such a harrowing diagnosis and prognosis.

But every "reminder that there are non-drug treatments" for any condition is also "useful" as a thought-provoking signal of the need to keep health care options open in an age when concerned scientists are increasingly noting the downside of the drugs industry.

The British Medical Journal, for instance, has just published data showing drug research is often suppressed in ways that harm patients and increase health care costs.

An editorial by Oxford University's Richard Lehman and the journal's editor Elizabeth Loder accompanied the papers. It said "Most clinicians assume that the complex regulatory systems that govern human research ensure that this knowledge is relevant, reliable, and properly disseminated. It generally comes as a shock to clinicians, and certainly to the public, to learn that this is far from the case."

Reporting this research, a US newspaper shared several distressing examples of the consequences of improperly withheld data. It quoted the lead author of one drug analysis saying 35 of 42 studies about it were unpublished and could only be obtained by a court order requiring the drug's maker to turn over the data.

This presents crucial ethical concerns, of course, which need solving through better practices.

But such concerns can also nudge people to question the very basis of our growing drug dependency.

A constructive way to frame such questioning is to ask whether a pill - even when effective - actually gets to the root of what really needs attention in times of sickness. Or is there something besides physical malfunctioning which needs to be addressed when we are ill? And, if so, what?

Physician and author Larry Dossey MD suggests more emphasis should be given to consciousness. He recalls being taken by surprise when - as a non-religious, young practitioner of internal medicine - he saw patients whose illnesses "went away" without medical intervention "following prayer".

He continues: "One patient I encountered during my first year in medical practice had terminal lung cancer for which no treatment was given; members of his church prayed nonstop for him and the cancer totally disappeared. I did not take these cases seriously, however, until the mid-80s, when I discovered the existence of scientific studies, dealing with humans and animals, showing the effects of prayer. After years spent researching this evidence, I became convinced that it is one of the best-kept secrets in medicine."

Not all prayer is alike and some research has concluded it is ineffective. Studies have even found some Americans, told they were being prayed for, did worse. However, as a Guardian commentator recently pointed out, this was probably evidence of the nocebo effect - the impact of negative beliefs. In this case those beliefs were the fear caused by learning a condition was serious enough to require prayer.

Such studies will continue and helpful data, pro and con, will accrue.

In the meantime, medicine's "best-kept secret" is no secret to many individuals with stories to tell of a positive effect experienced when drugs let them down and a more spiritual sense of themselves lifted them back up. For one individual this proved viable even in a case of Alzheimer's.

Over the course of our lives health challenges can be many and varied. So, too, can be the desired response.

Drugs will not always be everyone's answer. Therefore it is crucial to keep an open door to "drug-free" therapies.