A new study shows that sleep medications increase the risk of dementia in white patients. But the type and quantity of the medication may be factors in explaining the higher risk.
It follows previous work that shows Black patients have a higher likelihood than white patients of developing Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia, and that they have different risk factors and disease manifestation.
The final corrected draft of the study was publishe in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
In the study, approximately 3,000 older adults without dementia, who lived outside of nursing homes, were enrolled in the Health, Aging and Body Composition study and followed over an average duration of nine years. Their average age was 74; 42% were Black and 58% were white.
During the study, 20% developed dementia. 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 similar likelihood of developing dementia than those who abstained or rarely used the medications.
“Differences may be attributed to socio-economic status,” said first author Yue Leng, PhD, of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “Black participants who have access to sleep medications might be a select group with high socio-economic status and, thus, greater cognitive reserve, making them less susceptible to dementia.
“It’s also possible that some sleep medications were associated with a higher risk of dementia than others.”
The researchers found that white participants, at 7.7%, were three times as likely as Black participants, at 2.7%, to take sleep medications often, five to 15 times a month, or almost always, 16 times a month to daily. White patients were almost twice as likely to use benzodiazepines, like Halcion, Dalmane, and Restoril, prescribed for chronic insomnia.
White patients were also 10 times as likely to take trazodone, an antidepressant known by the trade names of Desyrel and Oleptro, that 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.
While future study 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, according to Leng.
“The first step is to determine what kind of sleep issues patients are dealing with. A sleep test may be required if sleep apnea is a possibility,” she said. “If insomnia is diagnosed, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) is the first-line treatment. If medication is to be used, melatonin might be a safer option, but we need more evidence to understand its long-term impact on health.”