Dementia is a chronic, progressive and ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disease. Advanced dementia is characterised by profound cognitive impairment, inability to communicate verbally and complete functional dependence. Usual care of people with advanced dementia is not underpinned universally by a palliative approach. Palliative care has focused traditionally on care of people with cancer but for more than a decade, there have been increased calls worldwide to extend palliative care services to include all people with life-limiting illnesses in need of specialist care, including people with dementia.
To assess the effect of palliative care interventions in advanced dementia and to report on the range of outcome measures used.
We searched ALOIS, the Cochrane Dementia and Cognitive Improvement Group's Specialized Register on 4 February 2016. ALOIS contains records of clinical trials identified from monthly searches of several major healthcare databases, trial registries and grey literature sources. We ran additional searches across MEDLINE (OvidSP), Embase (OvidSP), PsycINFO (OvidSP), CINAHL (EBSCOhost), LILACS (BIREME), Web of Science Core Collection (ISI Web of Science), ClinicalTrials.gov and the World Health Organization ICTRP trial portal to ensure that the searches were as comprehensive and as up-to-date as possible.
We searched for randomised (RCT) and non-randomised controlled trials (nRCT), controlled before-and-after studies (CBA) and interrupted time series studies evaluating the impact of palliative care interventions for adults with dementia of any type, staged as advanced dementia by a recognised and validated tool. Participants could be people with advanced dementia, their family members, clinicians or paid care staff. We included clinical interventions and non-clinical interventions. Comparators were usual care or another palliative care intervention. We did not exclude studies on the basis of outcomes measured and recorded all outcomes measured in included studies.
Data collection and analysis
Two review authors independently assessed for inclusion all the potential studies we identified as a result of the search strategy. We resolved any disagreement through discussion or, when required, consulted with the rest of the review team. We independently extracted data and conducted assessment of methodological quality, using standard Cochrane methods.
We identified two studies of palliative care interventions for people with advanced dementia. We did not pool data due to the heterogeneity between the two trials in terms of the interventions and the settings. The two studies measured 31 different outcomes, yet they did not measure the same outcome. There are six ongoing studies that we expect to include in future versions of this review.
Both studies were at high risk of bias, in part because blinding was not possible. This and small sample sizes meant that the overall certainty of all the evidence was very low.
One individually randomised RCT (99 participants) evaluated the effect of a palliative care team for people with advanced dementia hospitalised for an acute illness. While this trial reported that a palliative care plan was more likely to be developed for participants in the intervention group (risk ratio (RR) 5.84, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.37 to 25.02), the plan was only adopted for two participants, both in the intervention group, while in hospital. The palliative care plan was more likely to be available on discharge in the intervention group (RR 4.50, 95% CI 1.03 to 19.75). We found no evidence that the intervention affected mortality in hospital (RR 1.06, 95% CI 0.53 to 2.13), decisions to forgo cardiopulmonary resuscitation in hospital or the clinical care provided during hospital admission, but for the latter, event rates were low and the results were associated with a lot of uncertainty.
One cluster RCT (256 participants, each enrolled with a family carer) evaluated the effect of a decision aid on end-of-life feeding options on surrogate decision-makers of nursing home residents with advanced dementia. Data for 90 participants (35% of the original study) met the definition of advanced dementia for this review and were re-analysed for the purposes of the review. In this subset, intervention surrogates had lower scores for decisional conflict measured on the Decisional Conflict Scale (mean difference -0.30, 95% CI -0.61 to 0.01, reduction of 0.3 to 0.4 units considered meaningful) and were more likely than participants in the control group to discuss feeding options with a clinician (RR 1.57, 95% CI 0.93 to 2.64), but imprecision meant that there was significant uncertainty about both results.
Very little high quality work has been completed exploring palliative care interventions in advanced dementia. There were only two included studies in this review, with variation in the interventions and in the settings that made it impossible to conduct a meta-analysis of data for any outcome. Thus, we conclude that there is insufficient evidence to assess the effect of palliative care interventions in advanced dementia. The fact that there are six ongoing studies at the time of this review indicates an increased interest in this area by researchers, which is welcome and needed.