A cheap, off-patent Alzheimer’s drug could have previously-unnoticed benefits in the late stages of the disease and save the NHS money, according to new research.

The study, led by Professor Robert Howard from University College London, focused on donepezil, which is used to relive some symptoms of the disease and was originally marketed as Aricept by Pfizer and Eisai. 

The drug is usually withdrawn in the late stages of Alzheimer’s as it is believed that its benefits do not outweigh its side effects, which can include nausea and heart arrhythmia. However, the results suggested that keeping moderate to severe patients on the drug could almost halve the chances of the patient needing to be moved into a nursing home.

Twenty percent of patines who remained on donepezil ended up in a care home after 12 months, compared to 37 percent of those who were taken off the medicine.

Crucially, the drug only costs just over £20 a year, while the average annual cost of residential care for people with dementia ranges between £30,732 and £34,424. Wider usage of the drug could therefore mean huge savings for the NHS.

"We are all impatient for the advent of true disease-modifying drugs that can slow or halt the Alzheimer's process, but donepezil is available right now and at modest cost," said Professor Howard. "People will look at our trial and it will make them think that these drugs have more to offer in severe Alzheimer's disease than perhaps was previously thought.”