In a study from the University of California San Francisco, scientists found that sleep medications increase the risk of dementia for people who are white.
But the type and quantity of the medication may be factors in explaining the higher risk.
It follows previous work that shows people who are Black have a higher likelihood than people who are white of developing Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia, and that they have different risk factors and disease manifestations.
In the study, the team used data from about 3,000 older adults without dementia, who lived outside of nursing homes in the Health, Aging and Body Composition study.
These people were followed over an average of nine years. Their average age was 74; 58% were white and 42% were Black.
During the study, 20% developed dementia. The team found white participants who “often” or “almost always” took sleep medications had a 79% higher chance of developing dementia compared to those who “never” or “rarely” used them.
Among Black participants—whose consumption of sleep aids was markedly lower—frequent users had a likelihood of developing dementia similar to those who abstained or rarely used the medications.
The researchers found that people who are white, at 7.7%, were three times as likely as people who are Black, at 2.7%, to take sleep medications “often” (five to 15 times a month), or “almost always” (16 times a month to daily).
Whites were almost twice as likely to use benzodiazepines, like Halcion, Dalmane and Restoril, prescribed for chronic insomnia.
People who are white were also 10 times as likely to take trazodone, an antidepressant known by the trade names of Desyrel and Oleptro, which may also be prescribed as a sleep aid.
And they were more than seven times as likely to take “Z-drugs,” such as Ambien, a so-called sedative-hypnotic.
The team says while future studies may offer clarity on the cognitive risks or rewards of sleep medications and the role that race may play, patients with poor sleep should hesitate before considering medications.
It is important to note that the study does not establish a causal link between sleep medications and dementia, but the findings suggest a strong association.
The researchers noted that the risk posed by sleep medications might be mitigated by lifestyle interventions that promote healthy sleep, such as reducing caffeine intake, following a consistent sleep schedule and avoiding screen time in the evening.
They also recommended that physicians be cautious when prescribing sleep medications, especially for people who are white, and consider nonpharmacologic options first.
The findings from the study also highlight the need for more research on the potential risks and benefits of sleep medications.
Other studies have linked sleep medications to increased risk of falls, fractures, and car accidents, as well as increased mortality rates.
In addition, some studies have suggested that the long-term use of sleep medications may be associated with an increased risk of cancer and other serious health problems.
For example, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015 found that people who used benzodiazepines and other sleep medications were at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Given the potential risks associated with sleep medications, it is important to explore alternative approaches to managing sleep problems, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques, and other nonpharmacologic interventions.
These approaches may be particularly effective for people who are white, and who appear to be at higher risk of developing dementia from sleep medications.
In conclusion, the study by the University of California San Francisco highlights the potential risks associated with sleep medications, particularly for people who are white.
The findings underscore the need for physicians to exercise caution when prescribing these medications.
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The study was conducted by Yue Leng et al and published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
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