'Chemical cosh' drugs use on dementia patients rose 50% in pandemic

Prescriptions of dangerous ‘chemical cosh’ drugs for dementia patients in care homes rose by 50 per cent during pandemic, study finds

  • Antipsychotic drug prescriptions for dementia patients soared during pandemic
  • Rates increased from 18% in 2018 to 28% this year despite the drugs’ dangers 
  • Charities slammed the ‘shocking and dangerous scale’ the drugs are dished out 

Prescriptions of dangerous ‘chemical cosh’ drugs to dementia-stricken care home residents soared by 50 per cent during Covid, research showed today.

University of Exeter and King’s College London researchers discovered the use of antipsychotic drugs among homes soared from 18 per cent in 2017 to 28 per cent this year.

The tranquilisers are usually prescribed to schizophrenia patients to help prevent hallucinations.

They’ve been dubbed ‘chemical cosh’ due to their sedative effects and have been routinely used on people with dementia to control agitation, despite a supposed Government crackdown because of the dangers they pose. 

Previous research have found them to be double the risk of early death and treble the chances of stroke.

Charities slammed the ‘shocking and dangerous scale’ in which the medication is now being dished out to vulnerable residents.

The proportion of dementia patients prescribed dangerous ‘chemical cosh’ drugs at care homes in Britain rose by 50 per cent during the Covid pandemic, University of Exeter and King’s College London research showed today

Today’s figures, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, show up to half of dementia patients at a third of care homes were prescribed the drugs.

The research data compared more than 700 care home residents taking part in two studies in 2016-17 and 2021-22 across Britain.

Learning a new language, volunteering and gardening in middle-age are among the activities that could protect against dementia, a study claimed today.

Brighton and Sussex Medical School researchers said an ‘intellectually, socially and physically active lifestyle’ may keep the memory-robbing condition at bay.

The study tracked nearly 1,200 Brits over their lifetimes to see how their habits and education levels impacted their brain performance in old age.

It found those who kept up at least six brain-stimulating activities through their lives had the best cognitive performance in their late 60s.

Researchers claimed people learning new skills, such as the ability to speak French or German, in their 40s ‘may help ward off cognitive decline and dementia’.

Around 900,000 people are thought to be living with dementia in the UK, with rates expected to increase with an ageing population. The figure is around seven times higher in the US, charities say. 

An array of studies have linked keeping up reading, writing and playing games with delaying the cruel condition’s onset by up to five years, simply by keeping the brain healthy.

Dr Richard Oakley, from the Alzheimer’s Society, said: ‘This study shows the shocking and dangerous scale of the use of antipsychotic drugs to treat people with dementia in care homes.

‘Alzheimer’s Society has been campaigning for a move away from the model of “medicate first” and funded research into alternatives to antipsychotic prescriptions, focused on putting people living with dementia at the centre of their own care.

‘This drug-free, tailored care can help avoid the loss of lives associated with the harmful side effects of antipsychotic medications.’

Latest NHS data show 41,198 out of England’s 447,415 registered dementia patients were prescribed with antipsychotics in June this year.

Antipsychotic drugs are used to treat some of the more distressing behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia, including agitation and psychotic episodes.

They have only very limited, short-term benefits in treating psychiatric symptoms in people with dementia.

But they significantly increase the risk of serious side effects, including stroke, accelerated decline and death.

Covid presented unprecedented challenges for care homes, where around 70 per cent of residents have dementia.

Some of the challenges facing care homes included access to PPE, staffing levels, isolation, and caring for residents in lockdown conditions.

Professor Clive Ballard, who was part of the national campaign in 2009 to reduce antipsychotic prescribing by half, said people with dementia need to be protected from exposure to ‘significant harms’.

He said: ‘Covid put tremendous pressure on care homes, and the majority of them must be applauded for maintaining relatively low antipsychotic prescribing levels amid incredibly difficult circumstances.

‘However, there were very significant rises in antipsychotic prescribing in one third of care homes and we urgently need to find ways to prioritise support to prevent people with dementia being exposed to significant harms.’

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