Bill Wiggins believes a powerful antipsychotic medication helped save his wife, Kathye.
Helen Shields believes one of these drugs helped kill her mother, Helen Marciniszyn.
Two families, two drugs, two stories that capture the extremes of a debate about using these medicines to treat the diseases of aging when there are no other effective alternatives.
Kathye Wiggins took Johnson & Johnson's Risperdal. Marciniszyn took AstraZeneca's Seroquel. Both drugs are atypical antipsychotics, a category of psychotropic drugs that also includes Zyprexa from Eli Lilly & Co., Abilify by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., and Pfizer Inc.'s Geodon.
The federal government approved atypicals in the 1990s to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Since then, they have become popular for treating disorders including autism and Alzheimer's, despite mixed evidence that they help and ample evidence that they hurt.
Doctors prescribe atypicals for these illnesses because they may calm people and help them sleep. Also, patients with Alzheimer's and dementia can lose touch with reality, as schizophrenics do, so, in theory, atypicals could help.
Sales of atypicals rose to $14.36 billion in 2008 from $8.4 billion in 2003, according to data provider IMS Health.
Elderly patients have been a major source of that growth. Studies suggest that 20 percent to 30 percent of nursing-home residents take an atypical, despite not having a psychosis diagnosis.
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