Study Finds Antipsychotic Drugs For Dementia Patients Increase Risk of Death

By McCarton Ackerman 03/23/15

One third of older adults with dementia were given antipsychotics in 2012.

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Although medicating dementia patients is becoming a common practice to curtail aggression and behavior problems that can occur in this population, a shocking new study suggests these antipsychotic drugs increases their chances of dying early.

The findings, published this week in JAMA Psychiatry, analyzed the medical data of more than 91,000 veterans ages 65 and over. Researchers from U-M's Medical School and VA Center for Clinical Management Research found that those who who took haloperidol had a 3.8% increased risk of dying compared to those not using antipsychotic medications, while those taking olanzapine had a 2.5% increased risk of death. Both the mood stabilizer valproic and antidepressants also showed increased risks.

These statistics are especially relevant because a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that one-third of older adults with dementia who stayed at a nursing home sometime in 2012 were given antipsychotic medications. About 14% of dementia patients living in the community were prescribed these medications. But Dr. Donovan Maust, a University of Michigan geriatric psychiatrist, said the findings don’t mean these medications should never be used.

"The family can be at wit's end. A lot of times families will say, 'If my mom or dad knew they were acting like this, they'd be mortified,'" he explained. “[But] when you're prescribing a medication that's related to a harm—and that's mortality—that's something you really need to think about.”

Roger Bushnell, board chair of the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Michigan, said that alternative methods for quelling the aggressive tendencies in some dementia patients that are often sparked by fear. His mother, who suffers from dementia, is often calmed by Bobby Vinton songs. He also reported knowing a patient who was calmed by painting and the presence of an art therapist.

Unfortunately, identifying these alternative solutions can be costly and neither Medicare or Medicaid are set up to easily reimburse providers for the hours spent doing so.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.