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Posted: August 26, 2008

ADHD Drug Helps Keep Seniors from Falling, Gives a Cognitive Boost

A drug widely used to treat attention deficit disorder in hyperactive children appears to help the elderly maintain their balance and keep from falling, a leading cause of death in old age. It may also stimulate the elderly’s thinking abilities.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University say older people who take Ritalin (generically known as methylphenidate) may improve their cognitive abilities and their gait, cutting the risk for serious falls. This surprising finding was made by Jeffrey M. Hausdorff, a professor at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, and colleagues, and it reported in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The Israeli research team is the first to investigate the power of Ritalin to prevent falling in the elderly. After only one dose of Ritalin, seniors walked with a steadier gait and performed better on a standard screening test for fall risk, Hausdorff found.

"Our study suggests that it may be possible to reduce the risk of falls in older adults by treating cognitive deficits associated with aging and disease," Hausdorff said. "This is consistent with a growing body of literature which has demonstrated that walking is not a simple, automated task, as it was once believed. We've taken this idea a step further and shown that you can capitalize on this dependence on cognitive function and use it to reduce the risk of falls."

Knowing how to improve cognitive functioning could lead to fewer falls -- and fewer related deaths -- among America's senior population. "Some have estimated that more than 50% of seniors who break a hip from a fall will die within the year," says Hausdorff. This is partly due to a vicious cycle fueled by a fear of falling and subsequent inactivity, causing elderly patients to spiral into further decline.

In the recent study, Hausdorff gave Ritalin to 26 healthy seniors who lived in independent environments. They were assessed for fall risk before taking a single dose of Ritalin or placebo administered in a double blind fashion. The subjects were then asked to perform the "Timed Up and Go" test, during which they were asked to stand up from a chair, walk at a normal pace for about 10 feet and then turn around, walk back and sit down. The longer it takes to accomplish the task, the greater the fall risk.

Those who took Ritalin performed the test quicker and had less variability in their "stride time," a common sign of instability, researchers found. Preliminary research on patients with Parkinson's disease also shows that Ritalin may help decrease the risk of falling even in the face of this common neurodegenerative disease.

While the notion of treating fall risk with a pill is "an intriguing concept," says Hausdorff, it is not likely to be a silver-bullet solution, and it is still too early to recommend Ritalin on a wide scale basis. Additional studies are planned to more fully assess clinical utility, but it's likely that, for example, the drug would not be suitable for people who have certain types of heart disease.

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