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Alzheimer’s

If I Have Cancer, Dementia or MS, Should I Get the Covid Vaccine?

As public demand grows for limited supplies of covid-19 vaccines, questions remain about the vaccines’ appropriateness for older adults with various illnesses. Among them are cancer patients receiving active treatment, dementia patients near the end of their lives and people with autoimmune conditions.

Recently, a number of readers have asked me whether older relatives with these conditions should be immunized. This is a matter for medical experts, and I solicited advice from several. All strongly suggested that people with questions contact their doctors and discuss their individual medical circumstances.

Experts’ advice may be helpful since states are beginning to offer vaccines to adults over age 65, 70 or 75, including those with serious underlying medical conditions. Twenty-eight states are doing so, according to the latest survey by The New York Times.

Q: My 80-year-old mother has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. For weeks, her oncologist would not tell her “yes” or “no” about the vaccine. After much pressure, he finally responded: “It won’t work for you, your immune system is too compromised to make antibodies.” She asked if she can take the vaccine anyway, just in case it might offer a little protection, and he told her he was done discussing it with her.

First, some basics. Older adults, in general, responded extremely well to the two covid-19 vaccines that have received special authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. In large clinical trials sponsored by drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna, the vaccines achieved substantial protection against significant illness, with efficacy for older adults ranging from 87% to 94%.

But people 65 and older undergoing cancer treatment were not included in these studies. As a result, it’s not known what degree of protection they might derive.

Dr. Tobias Hohl, chief of the infectious diseases service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, suggested that three factors should influence patients’ decisions: Are vaccines safe, will they be effective, and what is my risk of becoming severely ill from covid-19? Regarding risk, he noted that older adults are the people most likely to become severely ill and perish from covid, accounting for about 80% of deaths to date — a compelling argument for vaccination.

Regarding safety, there is no evidence at this time that cancer patients are more likely to experience side effects from the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines than other people. Generally, “we are confident that these vaccines are safe for [cancer] patients,” including older patients, said Dr. Armin Shahrokni, a Memorial Sloan Kettering geriatrician and oncologist.

The exception, which applies to everyone, not just cancer patients: people who are allergic to covid-19 vaccine components or who experience severe allergic responses after getting a first shot shouldn’t get covid-19 vaccines.

Efficacy is a consideration for patients whose underlying cancer or treatment suppresses their immune systems. Notably, patients with blood and lymph node cancers may experience a blunted response to vaccines, along with patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Even in this case, “we have every reason to believe that if their immune system is functioning at all, they will respond to the vaccine to some extent,” and that’s likely to be beneficial, said Dr. William Dale, chair of supportive care medicine and director of the Center for Cancer Aging Research at City of Hope, a comprehensive cancer center in Los Angeles County.

Balancing the timing of cancer treatment and immunization may be a consideration in some cases. For those with serious disease who “need therapy as quickly as possible, we should not delay [cancer] treatment because we want to preserve immune function and vaccinate them” against covid, said Hohl of Memorial Sloan Kettering.

One approach might be trying to time covid vaccination “in between cycles of chemotherapy, if possible,” said Dr. Catherine Liu, a professor in the vaccine and infectious disease division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

In new guidelines published late last week, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, an alliance of cancer centers, urged that patients undergoing active treatment be prioritized for vaccines as soon as possible. A notable exception:  Patients who’ve received stem cell transplants or bone marrow transplants should wait at least three months before getting vaccines, the group recommended.

The American Cancer Society’s chief medical and scientific officer, Dr. William Cance, said his organization is “strongly in favor of cancer patients and cancer survivors getting vaccinated, particularly older adults.” Given vaccine shortages, he also recommended that cancer patients who contract covid-19 get antibody therapies as soon as possible, if their oncologists believe they’re good candidates. These infusion therapies, from Eli Lilly and Co. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, rely on synthetic immune cells to help fight infections.

Q: Should my 97-year-old mom, in a nursing home with dementia, even get the covid vaccine?

The federal government and all 50 states recommend covid vaccines for long-term care residents, most of whom have Alzheimer’s disease or other types of cognitive impairment. This is an effort to stem the tide of covid-related illness and death that has swept through nursing homes and assisted living facilities — 37% of all covid deaths as of mid-January.

The Alzheimer’s Association also strongly encourages immunization against covid-19, “both for people [with dementia] living in long-term care and those living in the community, said Beth Kallmyer, vice president of care and support.

“What I think this question is trying to ask is ‘Will my loved one live long enough to see the benefit of being vaccinated?’” said Dr. Joshua Uy, medical director at a Philadelphia nursing home and geriatric fellowship director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Potential benefits include not becoming ill or dying from covid-19, having visits from family or friends, engaging with other residents and taking part in activities, Uy suggested. (This is a partial list.) Since these benefits could start accruing a few weeks after residents in a facility are fully immunized, “I would recommend the vaccine for a 97-year-old with significant dementia,” Uy said.

Minimizing suffering is a key consideration, said Dr. Michael Rafii, associate professor of clinical neurology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “Even if a person has end-stage dementia, you want to do anything you can to reduce the risk of suffering. And this vaccine provides individuals with a good deal of protection from suffering severe covid,” he said.

“My advice is that everyone should get vaccinated, regardless of what stage of dementia they’re in,” Rafii said. That includes dementia patients at the end of their lives in hospice care, he noted.

If possible, a loved one should be at hand for reassurance since being approached by someone wearing a mask and carrying a needle can evoke anxiety in dementia patients. “Have the person administering the vaccine explain who they are, what they’re doing and why they’re wearing a mask in clear, simple language,” Rafii suggested.

Q: I’m 80 and I have Type 2 diabetes and an autoimmune disease. Should I get the vaccine?

There are two parts to this question. The first has to do with “comorbidities” — having more than one medical condition. Should older adults with comorbidities get covid vaccines?

Absolutely, because they’re at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from covid, said Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious diseases specialist and co-chair of the Mayo Clinic’s covid-19 vaccine rollout.

“Pfizer’s and Moderna’s studies specifically looked at people who were older and had comorbidities, and they showed that vaccine response was similar to [that of] people who were younger,” she noted.

The second part has to do with autoimmune illnesses such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, which also put people at higher risk. The concern here is that a vaccine might trigger inflammatory responses that could exacerbate these conditions.

Philippa Marrack, chair of the department of immunology and genomic medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, said there’s no scientifically rigorous data on how patients with autoimmune conditions respond to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

So far, reasons for concern haven’t surfaced. “More than 100,000 people have gotten these vaccines now, including some who probably had autoimmune disease, and there’s been no systematic reporting of problems,” Marrack said. If patients with autoimmune disorders are really worried, they should talk with their physicians about delaying immunization until other covid vaccines with different formulations become available, she suggested.

Last week, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommended that most patients with multiple sclerosis — another serious autoimmune condition — get the Pfizer or Moderna covid vaccines.

“The vaccines are not likely to trigger an MS relapse or to worsen your chronic MS symptoms. The risk of getting COVID-19 far outweighs any risk of having an MS relapse from the vaccine,” it said in a statement.

We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

Alzheimer’s Inc.: Colleagues Question Scientist’s Pricey Recipe Against Memory Loss

When her husband was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease in 2015, Elizabeth Pan was devastated by the lack of options to slow his inevitable decline. But she was encouraged when she discovered the work of a UCLA neurologist, Dr. Dale Bredesen, who offered a comprehensive lifestyle management program to halt or even reverse cognitive decline in patients like her husband.

After decades of research, Bredesen had concluded that more than 36 drivers of Alzheimer’s cumulatively contribute to the loss of mental acuity. They range from chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes to vitamin and hormonal deficiencies, undiagnosed infections and even long-term exposures to toxic substances. Bredesen’s impressive academic credentials lent legitimacy to his approach.

Pan paid $4,000 to a doctor trained in Bredesen’s program for a consultation and a series of extensive laboratory tests, then was referred to another doctor, who devised a stringent regimen of dietary changes that entailed cutting out all sugars, eating a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet and adhering to a complex regimen of meditation, vigorous daily exercise and about a dozen nutritional supplements each day (at about $200 a month). Pan said she had extensive mold remediation done in her home after the Bredesen doctors told her the substance could be hurting her husband’s brain.

But two years passed, she said, and her husband, Wayne, was steadily declining. To make matters worse, he had lost more than 60 pounds because he didn’t like the food on the diet. In April, he died.

“I imagine it works in some people and doesn’t work in others,” said Pan, who lives in Oakton, Virginia. “But there’s no way to tell ahead of time if it will work for you.”

Bredesen wrote the best-selling 2017 book “The End of Alzheimer’s” and has promoted his ideas in talks to community groups around the country and in radio and TV appearances like “The Dr. Oz Show.” He has also started his own company, Apollo Health, to market his program and train and provide referrals for practitioners.

Unlike other self-help regimens, Bredesen said, his program is an intensely personalized and scientific approach to counteract each individual’s specific deficits by “optimizing the physical body and understanding the molecular drivers of the disease,” he told KHN in a November phone interview. “The vast majority of people improve” as long as they adhere to the regimen.

Bredesen’s peers acknowledge him as an expert on aging. A former postdoctoral fellow under Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner at the University of California-San Francisco, Bredesen presided over a well-funded lab at UCLA for more than five years. He has been on the UCLA faculty since 1989 and also founded the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Marin County. He has written or co-authored more than 200 papers.

But colleagues are critical of what they see as his commercial promotion of a largely unproven and costly regimen. They say he strays from long-established scientific norms by relying on anecdotal reports from patients, rather than providing evidence with rigorous research.

“He’s an exceptional scientist,” said George Perry, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas-San Antonio. “But monetizing this is a turnoff.”

“I have seen desperate patients and family members clean out their bank accounts and believe this will help them with every ounce of their being,” said Dr. Joanna Hellmuth, a neurologist in the Memory and Aging Center at UCSF. “They are clinging to hope.”

Many of the lifestyle changes Bredesen promotes are known to be helpful. “The protocol itself is based on very low-quality data, and I worry that vulnerable patients and family members may not understand that,” said Hellmuth. “He trained here” — at UCSF — “so he knows better.”

The Bredesen package doesn’t come cheap. He has built a network of practitioner-followers by training them in his protocol — at $1,800 a pop — in seminars sponsored by the Institute for Functional Medicine, which emphasizes alternative approaches to managing disease. Apollo Health also offers two-week training sessions for a $1,500 fee.

Once trained in his ReCODE Protocol, medical professionals charge patients upward of $300 for a consultation and as much as $10,500 for eight- to 15-month treatment packages. For the ReCODE protocol, aimed at people already suffering from early-stage Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive decline, Apollo Health charges an initial $1,399 fee for a referral to a local practitioner that includes an assessment and extensive laboratory tests. Apollo then offers $75-per-month subscriptions that provide cognitive games and online support, and links to another company that offers dietary supplements for an additional $150 to $450 a month. Insurance generally covers little of these costs.

Apollo Health, founded in 1998 and headquartered in Burlingame, California, also offers a protocol geared toward those who have a family history of dementia or want to prevent cognitive decline.

Bredesen estimates that about 5,000 people have done the ReCODE program. The fees are a bargain, Bredesen said, if they slow decline enough to prevent someone from being placed in a nursing home, where yearly costs can climb past $100,000 annually.

Bredesen and his company are tapping into the desperation that has grown out of the failure of a decades-long scientific quest for effective Alzheimer’s treatments. Much of the research money in the field has narrowly focused on amyloid — the barnacle-like gunk that collects outside nerve cells and interferes with the brain’s signaling system — as the main culprits behind cognitive decline. Drugmakers have tried repeatedly, and thus far without much success, to invent a trillion-dollar anti-amyloid drug. There’s been less emphasis in the field on the lifestyle choices that Bredesen stresses.

“Amyloids sucked up all the air in the room,” said Dr. Lon Schneider, an Alzheimer’s researcher and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.

Growing evidence shows lifestyle changes help delay the progress of the mind-robbing disease. An exhaustive Lancet report in August identified a long list of risk factors for dementia, including excessive drinking, exposure to air pollution, obesity, loss of hearing, smoking, depression, lack of exercise and social isolation. Controlling these factors — which can be done on the cheap — could delay or even prevent up to 40% of dementia cases, according to the report.

Bredesen’s program involves all these practices, with personalized bells and whistles like intermittent fasting, meditation and supplements. Bredesen’s scientific peers question whether data supports his micromanaged approach over plain-vanilla healthy living.

Bredesen haspublished three papers showing positive results in many patients following his approach, but critics say he has fallen short of proving his method’s effectiveness.

The papers lack details on which protocol elements were followed, or the treatment duration, UCSF’s Hellmuth said. Nor do they explain how cognitive tests were conducted or evaluated, so it’s difficult to gauge whether improvements were due to the intervention, to chance variations in performance or an assortment of other variables, she said.

Bredesen shrugs off the criticism: “We want things to be in an open-access journal so everybody can read it. These are still peer-reviewed journals. So what’s the problem?”

Another problem raised about Bredesen’s enterprise is the lack of quality control, which he acknowledges. Apollo-trained “certified practitioners” can include everyone from nurses and dietitians to chiropractors and health coaches. Practitioners with varying degrees of training and competence can take his classes and hang out a shingle. That’s a painful fact for some who buy the package.

“I had the impression these practitioners were certified, but I realize they all had just taken a two-week course,” said a Virginia man who requested anonymity to protect his wife’s privacy. He said that he had spent more than $15,000 on tests and treatments for his ailing spouse and that six months into the program, earlier this year, she had failed to improve.

Bredesen said he and his staff were reviewing “who’s getting the best results and who’s getting the worst results,” and intended to cut poor performers out of the network. “We’ll make it so that you can only see the people getting the best results,” he said.

Colleagues say that to test whether Bredesen’s method works it needs to be subjected to a placebo-controlled study, the gold standard of medical research, in which half the participants get the treatment while the other half don’t.

In the absence of rigorous studies, said USC’s Schneider, a co-author of the Lancet report, “saying you can ‘end Alzheimer’s now and this is how you do it’ is overpromising and oversimplifying. And a lot of it is just common sense.”

Bredesen no longer says his method can end Alzheimer’s, despite the title of his book. Apollo Health’s website still makes that claim, however.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.