Powerful sedatives and painkillers are putting the lives of 200,000 dementia patients at risk, doctors warned.
Sleeping medications called ‘z-drugs’, which are taken by 80,000 dementia patients, increase the risk of death by 34 %, a study found.
Doctors also warned that a second study showed an opioid painkiller called buprenorphine, which is taken by 120,000 dementia patients, tripled the risk of psychotic and neurological problems – such as personality changes and confusion.
They said they believe this drug may also increase the risk of death.
The drugs are particularly common in care homes, where they are known as a ‘chemical cosh’ used for dealing with difficult elderly patients.
The new findings, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Chicago, suggest our most vulnerable citizens are among those at greatest risk of this crisis.
Experts have been warning for years that care staff are too reliant on anti-psychotic drugs to control the behaviour of difficult dementia patients. And now the latest studies – involving the universities of Exeter, East Anglia, Newcastle, Aston, King’s College London and UCL – reveal how other drugs also pose a danger to dementia patients.
The first study, of 4,500 dementia patients, found that the hypnotic sedatives known as z-drugs – such as zolpidem, zopiclone and zaleplon – increased the risk of bone fractures by 40 per cent and the risk of death by 34 per cent.
The pills are usually used to aid sleep but are also used to treat anxiety – common problems in dementia patients.
A second study of 162 people found buprenorphine tripled the risk of psychotic and neurological problems. People who took this drug also saw their daytime activity drop 13 % in a week – a particular problem for those already largely confined indoors.
Professor Clive Ballard of Exeter University, who was involved with both studies, said: ‘Obviously the easiest thing is to give people a pill.
‘But other things could work – maybe not putting people to bed so early will help them sleep, making sure they are active during the day, dealing with any anxieties. If they are in pain maybe physiotherapy would work.
‘Obviously these approaches might not be the answer for all of them, but it could be a solution for some of the 200,000 people currently taking these drugs.’
He added: ‘Pain is a symptom that can cause huge distress and it’s important that we can provide relief to people with dementia. Sadly at the moment we’re harming people when we’re trying to ease their pain.’