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The medications are widely used to treat the delusions, hallucinations, agitation and aggression that occur in many people with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that antipsychotic drugs have a significant risk of side effects, the study authors pointed out.
For the new study, researchers examined data from nearly 91,000 U.S. veterans who were older than 65 and had dementia. Those who took antipsychotics were more likely to die early, the study found. Among those taking newer, more commonly used antipsychotics, the risk of premature death increased with the dose.
"The harms associated with using these drugs in dementia patients are clear, yet clinicians continue to use them," study author Dr. Donovan Maust, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, said in a university news release.
"That's likely because the symptoms are so distressing. These results should raise the threshold for prescribing further," added Maust, who also works at the VA Center for Clinical Management Research.
The investigators also looked at other psychiatric drugs and found the risk of death associated with the mood stabilizer valproic acid (Depakene) was similar to that of antipsychotics, according to the report published in the March 18 issue of the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
In the study, the risk of death among patients taking antidepressants was lower than among those taking antipsychotics or valproic acid, but was still higher than among those who weren't taking any medications to treat dementia-related behavior problems.
One-third of seniors with dementia who had long-term nursing home stays in 2012 were prescribed antipsychotics, according to a federal government report. In addition, about 14 percent of dementia patients who lived in the community were prescribed the drugs that year.
According to the FDA, use of antipsychotic drugs increases the risk of cardiovascular problems and premature death in people with dementia.
-- Robert Preidt
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