MONDAY, May 26, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Elderly people with dementia who are given antipsychotics, even for a very short period of time, are more likely to end up in the hospital or even die, new research shows.
However, the problems underlying the need for such medications, behavioral problems such as aggression and agitation, are very real, and the alternatives to antipsychotics are limited, the researchers added.
"A misreading of the findings would be we don't need to do something for these nursing home residents," said study author Dr. Gary J. Kennedy, head of geriatric psychiatry for Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Many experts feel behavioral interventions should be tried first and antipsychotics used as a last resort, "when the behavior or the psychiatric symptoms are really out of control and causing complete distress not only for the person suffering from Alzheimer's, but for caregivers all around them," said Maria Carrillo, director of medical and scientific affairs at the Alzheimer's Association in Chicago. "It's important to work these things out with the physician and, of course, do follow-up very closely together, so you can make sure these antipsychotics are having the effect you want and, if not, discontinue them immediately."
The findings were published in the May 26 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Antipsychotic drugs are commonly used to treat some of the behavioral complications of dementia, including delirium.
Newer antipsychotic medications such as Zyprexa (olanzapine) and Risperdal (risperidone) have been available for about a decade and have largely replaced their older counterparts.
Researchers from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Ontario, Canada, compared 20,682 older adults with dementia living in the community with 20,559 older adults with dementia living in a nursing home between April 1, 1997, and March 31, 2004.
Each group was divided into three subgroups: those not receiving any antipsychotics, those taking newer antipsychotics, and those taking older antipsychotics such as Haldol (haloperidol).
According to information gleaned from medical records, community-dwelling adults who had recently received a prescription for a newer antipsychotic medication were 3.2 times more likely than individuals who had received no antipsychotic therapy to be hospitalized or to die during 30 days of follow-up.
Those who received older antipsychotic therapy were 3.8 times more likely to have such an event, relative to their peers who had received no antipsychotic therapy.
A similar pattern, albeit less dramatic, emerged in the nursing home group. Individuals taking older antipsychotics were 2.4 times more likely to be hospitalized or die, while those taking newer drugs were 1.9 times more likely to die or be hospitalized during the 30 days of follow-up.
The study does, however, have its limitations. "It's a carefully done study," Kennedy said. "One flaw is that the [participants] weren't randomly administered antipsychotics. There was some reason they were given an antipsychotic, such as aggression or agitation. It may have been done if they were recently admitted to the nursing home as part of the adjustment process.
Indeed, the authors acknowledged that about 17 percent of patients entering nursing homes start taking an antipsychotic within 100 days.
"For any of us, moving is like being sick. It takes a while to recover," Kennedy said. "We need other sets of interventions besides medications. What that implies is more staffing and better training for staff, and that may not be a whole lot more expensive than medicines."
The Alzheimer's Association has a statement on treating behavioral and psychiatric symptoms in Alzheimer's patients.