A new study, published in Lancet Neurology, suggests long-term use of antipsychotic drugs in patient’s that have Alzheimer’s disease nearly doubles their rate of death after one year, adding to safety concerns already known about this class of medications.
Antipsychotic medications are approved to treat agitation and disruptive behaviors in Alzheimer's patients for short periods of time, defined generally as three months or less. However, many patients remain on these drugs for longer periods.
“There is a significant discrepancy between best-practice guidelines and those that are really taking place,” said Clive Ballard, study author and professor of age-related disease at King's College London.
Alzheimer’s is an incurable disease. Current medications can help delay disease symptoms, if only slightly, but inevitably patients will experience loss of memory and the associated inability to recognize friends and loved ones.
For the study, researchers followed 165 patients residing in U.K. nursing homes with moderate to severe Alzheimer's disease. Half the patients continued taking antipsychotic drugs including chlorpromazine, haloperidol, or risperidone. The other group of patients was given a placebo.
Of the 83 patients receiving antipsychotic drugs, 39 died after a year. Of the 82 patients taking placebo, 27 died after a year. Most of the deaths in both groups were due to pneumonia.
After two years, 46 percent of Alzheimer's patients taking antipsychotics were still alive, versus 71 percent of patients taking placebo. Only 30 percent of patients on the drugs were alive, after three years, versus 59 percent of those taking placebo.
Experts are unsure how the antipsychotic drugs increase patients’ risk of dying. But theorize the drugs may damage the brain and their sedative effects while making patients less able to exercise and more prone to deadly infections.
Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. An estimated 5.2 Americans are currently living with the disease. By 2050, that number will likely increase to 16 million.
In November, an outside panel of experts and other health agencies called on the FDA to study the long-term effects of prescribing antipsychotic drugs to children. The panel unanimously requested more long-term data on the side effects of using these powerful drugs in children. #