Antipsychotics are a specific type of psychotropic medication that are often used to help control some of the challenging behaviors that people with dementia experience. The initial approach to behaviors should always be to use behavior modification strategies and attempt to determine the causes behind the behaviors, since we know that most behavior has meaning. However, medications are also prescribed when these non-drug approaches are ineffective.
This recent study reviewed more than 75,000 people in the United States who had been prescribed antipsychotic medications in nursing homes from 2001-2005. (Data from people in nursing homes is fairly easy to collect; nursing homes are required to report data regularly since they receive funding from Medicare and Medicaid.) Researchers tracked the doses and the type of antipsychotic medication, as well as the mortality rates of those receiving the medications.
The results show that those receiving a specific type of antipsychotic medication called Haldol (haloperidol) have a significantly increased risk of death, especially shortly after treatment is started, compared to other types of antipsychotic medications.
Haldol is a typical antipsychotic, which places it in a classification of an older medication that often has more risks. Several of the other antipsychotic medications they reviewed were of the atypical class, which is a newer kind of antipsychotic medication that usually has less side effects than the typical ones.
A couple of thoughts about this study:
- Having been in the nursing home industry for several years, I can say with confidence that good facilities monitor the use of antipsychotics very closely. These medications have to be periodically reduced, and should not be used without trying non-drug interventions first.
- When research shows a clear risk, as it does here, it highlights your role as an advocate for a family member or friend with dementia. If your loved one is on an antipsychotic, particularly haloperidol, you might consider asking questions about why that drug was chosen, if another medication could be used instead, or if the medication can be decreased or stopped.