This Is Why You Want to Steer Clear of Antidepressants If You Have Alzheimer’s

If you or a loved one has Alzheimer's Disease, there's a good chance that antidepressants may be part of the treatment plan. But here's why that's a grave danger.

pillsPhotographee.eu/ShutterstockSome of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease are the same as those of depression, including apathy and irritability. As a result, many patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) are prescribed antidepressant medications. A group of scientists from the University of Eastern Finland were concerned that this practice could be increasing the risk of head and brain injuries among AD patients. Here’s why:

First, AD is a disease associated primarily with the elderly. Second, antidepressant use among the elderly is associated with an increased risk of falling down. Finally, falling down is the number one cause of head and brain injuries in the elderly (compare this to younger people, who more often experience head injuries as a result of motor vehicle, sports, and other accidents).

Since there were no existing studies investigating the risk of head or brain injuries associated with antidepressant use, let alone studies that focused on the AD patients or even the elderly, the Finnish scientists took it upon themselves to investigate whether antidepressant use is associated not only with an increased risk of falling, but also with an increased risk of head and brain injury in Alzheimer’s patients. What they found is that the use of antidepressants by AD patients is, in fact, associated with a higher risk of head injuries.

Their study, the results of which were recently published in the journal, Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, included 32,700 AD patients living in nursing homes, 10,910 of whom used antidepressants and 21,820 of whom did not. Each of the people who used antidepressant medication was matched with two users who did not, based on age, gender, and time since AD-diagnosis. Head and brain injuries were recorded, numbers were crunched, and the association became clear: the risk of head injury goes up immediately upon starting the medication and continues to be elevated for up to two years.

“Antidepressant use has been previously associated with an increased risk of falls,” the study authors report, “but our novel findings indicate that they are associated with severe injurious falls, i.e., those resulting in head or brain injuries among persons with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Future studies will be required to confirm the association between antidepressant use and head and brain injuries, and the study authors would like to conduct further research to determine whether the risk of head injury increases in all elderly people who use antidepressant medications, as opposed to just elderly AD patients.

For now, the study authors recommend that the use of antidepressants be “carefully considered” in those with AD, and in the elderly in general. Instead, practitioners may prescribe anti-psychotics, which have been the traditional treatment of choice for the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. The use of anti-psychotics comes with its own set of risks, including life-threatening brain events such as stroke and hemorrhage. However, knowing the risks of the available treatments for AD will allow for more-informed prescribing.

Even if you don’t have AD, your meds might be causing you problems. For example, here are some warning signs you’re taking too many prescription drugs.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.