Warning over ‘chemical cosh’ doled out to dementia sufferers as experts warn dangerous drugs are even more harmful than feared

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Widely prescribed medications are putting dementia patients at greater risk of heart attacks, blood clots and pneumonia, a study found.

The antipsychotic medications – often given to people with depression, agitation or aggression – can cause more severe side effects than previously thought.

Experts say the findings are so concerning that doctors should avoid prescribing drugs such as Risperdal and Zyprexa and instead look to alternatives like behavioural management therapy.

Researchers examined data from 174,000 adults GP surgeries in England on older adults who were diagnosed between dementia between 1998 and 2018.

Some 35,339 were prescribed antipsychotics during the study – 63 per cent of whom were women – and their medical records were compared to dementia patients who were not prescribed these drugs.

Previous regulatory warnings when prescribing antipsychotics for these symptoms were based on evidence of increased risks for stroke and death, but evidence of other adverse outcomes was less conclusive amongst people with dementia

Academics from the Universities of Manchester, Nottingham, Edinburgh and Dundee found that dementia patients who were current users of antipsychotic drugs had a two-fold increased risk of developing pneumonia compared to those who were not taking the drugs.

Researchers also found that dementia patients who took antipsychotics had a 61 per cent increased risk of stroke and a 43 per cent elevated risk of breaking a bone.

They also found a 28 per cent increased risk of heart attack and a 27 per cent increased risk of heart failure.

Patients with dementia who were prescribed antipsychotics appeared to have a 72 per cent increased risk of kidney injury and 62 per cent increased risk of developing a type of blood clot called a venous thromboembolism.

Professor Darren Ashcroft, from the University of Manchester and senior author of the study, said: ‘In recent years, it has become clear that more people with dementia are being prescribed antipsychotic drugs, despite existing regulatory safety warnings.

‘It is important that any potential benefits of antipsychotic treatment are weighed carefully against the risk of serious harm, and treatment plans need to be regularly reviewed in all health and care settings.’

The increased risks appeared to be highest in the first week after treatment, according to the observational findings published in the BMJ.

The authors said that their figures suggest over the 180 days after starting the drugs, use of antipsychotics might be associated with one additional case of pneumonia for every nine patients treated and one additional heart attack for every 167 patients treated.

Charles Marshall, professor of clinical neurology at Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘This evidence should prompt renewed efforts to reduce the prescribing of antipsychotics to people living with dementia.’

Dr Sheona Scales, director of research at the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘The distressing symptoms of dementia, such as confusion and agitation, pose significant challenges for people living with dementia, their families, and caregivers.

‘Treatments that can help manage these symptoms are essential for a better quality of life, but options are currently limited, and in certain circumstances antipsychotics can be used to treat severe symptoms.

‘However, these new findings suggest that these risks may be more severe than previously understood, which is particularly concerning given the rise in their use during the pandemic.’

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