Inappropriate Rx Use Persists in Older Adults With Dementia

Medications that could have a negative effect on cognition are often used by older adults with dementia, based on data from approximately 13 million individuals presented at the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) 2024 Annual Scientific Meeting.

Classes of medications including anticholinergics, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, and non-benzodiazepine sedatives (Z drugs) have been identified as potentially inappropriate medications (PIMs) in patients with dementia, according to the American Geriatrics Society Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults.

The medications that could worsen dementia or cognition are known as CogPIMs, said presenting author Caroline M. Mak, a Doctor of Pharmacy candidate at the University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, New York.

Previous research has characterized the prevalence of use of CogPIMs, but data connecting use of CogPIMs and healthcare use are lacking, Ms Mak said.

Ms Mak and colleagues conducted a cross-sectional analysis of data from 2011 to 2015 from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), a national survey with data on medication and healthcare use. The researchers included approximately 13 million survey respondents older than 65 years with dementia.

Exposure to CogPIMs was defined as filling a prescription for one or more of the CogPIMs during the study period. Population estimates of the prevalence of use of the CogPIMs were created using survey-weighted procedures, and prevalence trends were assessed using the Cochran-Armitage test.

Overall, the prevalence was 15.9%, 11.5%, 7.5%, and 3.8% for use of benzodiazepines, anticholinergics, antipsychotics, and Z drugs, respectively, during the study period.

Of these, benzodiazepines showed a significant trend with an increase in prevalence from 8.9% in 2011 to 16.4% in 2015 (P = .02).

The odds of hospitalization were more than twice as likely in individuals who reported using Z drugs (odds ratio, 2.57; P = .02) based on logistic regression. In addition, exposure to antipsychotics was significantly associated with an increased rate of hospitalization based on a binomial model for incidence rate ratio (IRR, 1.51; P = .02).

The findings were limited by several factors including the cross-sectional design, reliance on self-reports, and the lack of more recent data.

However, the results show that CogPIMs are often used by older adults with dementia, and antipsychotics and Z drugs could be targets for interventions to prevent harm from medication interactions and side effects, the researchers concluded.

Findings Highlight Need for Drug Awareness

The current study is important because of the expansion in the aging population and an increase in the number of patients with dementia, Ms Mak said in an interview. “In both our older population and dementia patients, there are certain medication considerations that we need to take into account, and certain drugs that should be avoided if possible,” she said. Clinicians have been trying to use the Beers criteria to reduce potential medication harm, she noted. “One group of investigators (Hilmer et al), have proposed a narrower focus on anticholinergic and sedative/hypnotic medication in the Drug Burden Index (DBI); the CogPIMs are a subset of both approaches (Beers and DBI) and represent a collection of medications that pose potential risks to our patients,” said Ms Mak.

Continued reassessment is needed on appropriateness of anticholinergics, Z drugs, benzodiazepines, and antipsychotics in older patients with dementia, she added.

“Even though the only group to have a significant increase in prevalence [of use] was the benzodiazepine group, we didn’t see a decrease in any of the other groups,” said Ms Mak. The current research provides a benchmark for CogPIMs use that can be monitored in the future for increases or, ideally, decreases, she said.

Part of a Bigger Picture

The current study is part of the work of Team Alice, a national deprescribing group affiliated with the University at Buffalo that was inspired by the tragic death of Alice Brennan, triggered by preventable medication harm, Ms Mak said in an interview. “Team Alice consists of an array of academic, primary care, health plan, and regional health information partners that have designed patient-driven interventions to reduce medication harm, especially within primary care settings,” she said. “Their mission is to save people like Alice by pursuing multiple strategies to deprescribe unsafe medication, reduce harm, and foster successful aging. By characterizing the use of CogPIMs, we can design better intervention strategies,” she said.

Although Ms Mak was not surprised by the emergence of benzodiazepines as the most commonly used drug groups, she was surprised by the increase during the study period.

“Unfortunately, our dataset was not rich enough to include reasons for this increase,” she said. In practice, “I have seen patients getting short-term, as needed, prescriptions for a benzodiazepine to address the anxiety and/or insomnia after the loss of a loved one; this may account for a small proportion of benzodiazepine use that appears to be inappropriate because of a lack of associated appropriate diagnosis,” she noted.

Also, the findings of increased hospitalization associated with Z drugs raises concerns, Ms Mak said. Although the findings are consistent with other research, they illustrate the need for further investigation to identify strategies to prevent this harm, she said. “Not finding associations with hospitalization related to benzodiazepine or anticholinergics was a mild surprise,” Ms Mak said in an interview. “However, while we know that these drugs can have a negative effect on older people, the effects may not have been severe enough to result in hospitalizations,” she said.

Looking ahead, Ms Mak said she would like to see the study rerun with a more current data set, especially with regard to benzodiazepines and antipsychotics.

Seek Strategies to Reduce Medication Use

The current study was notable for its community-based population and attention to hospitalizations, said Shelly Gray, PharmD, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy, in an interview.

“Most studies examining potentially inappropriate medications that may impair cognition have been conducted in nursing homes, while this study focuses on community dwelling older adults where most people with dementia live,” said Dr Gray, who served as a moderator for the session in which the study was presented.

In addition, “A unique aspect of this study was to examine how these medications are related to hospitalizations,” she said.

Given recent efforts to reduce use of potentially inappropriate medications in people with dementia, the increase in prevalence of use over the study period was surprising, especially for benzodiazepines, said Dr Gray.

In clinical practice, “health care providers should continue to look for opportunities to deprescribe medications that may worsen cognition in people with dementia,” she said. However, more research is needed to examine trends in the years beyond 2015 for a more contemporary picture of medication use in this population, she noted.

The study received no outside funding. The researchers and Dr Gray had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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