Common painkillers triple side effects of dementia, study says

Common painkillers have previously been linked to heart risks. Now scientists believe the medication could also triple the side effects of dementia, according to a new report.

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Researchers from universities in Europe recently conducted a study, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, to explore the impacts of opioid-based painkillers.

To do so, they examined 162 people with dementia and depression from 47 Norwegian care homes, taking note of the medicine they were prescribed.

After they analyzed the results, they found side effects tripled for those who were prescribed buprenorphine, a painkiller prescribed to 15 percent of dementia patients in countries where it is available. They saw a significant rise in personality changes, confusion, and sedation. These patients were also significantly less active.

In a separate study, they evaluated mice with a condition comparable to Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis. They said the rodents with Alzheimer’s responded to lower doses of the opioid-based morphine, compared to those without the disorder. Those with the condition also suffered worse side effects and produced more of the body’s natural endogenous opioids such as endorphins.

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In another assessment, they focused only on Z drugs, a group of medicines including zolpidem, zopiclone and zaleplon. The team analyzed the data for 2,952 people with dementia prescribed the medication and data for 1,651 who were not.

They discovered that people who took Z-drugs were more likely to fracture a bone, compared to those who didn’t take them. Bone fractures are related to an increased risk of death in people with dementia.

"Research into antipsychotics highlighted that they increased harmful side effects and death rates in people with dementia. This compelling evidence base helped persuade everyone involved in the field to take action, from policy makers to clinicians, reducing prescribing by 50 percent," coauthor Clive Ballard said in statement. "We now urgently need a similar concerted approach to opioid-based painkillers and Z-drugs, to protect frail elderly people with dementia from fractures and increased risk of death."

Researchers now hope to continue their investigations to determine whether adjusting the dosage of painkillers given to those with dementia can reduce dangerous side effects.

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