Antipsychotic drugs given to the elderly could triple the risk of potentially fatal strokes, The Alzheimer’s Society claims.
The charity also suggests that the medication could double the risk of death and leave patients unable to walk or talk.
Antipsychotics, which are prescribed to elderly patients to treat symptoms such as agitation, psychosis, anxiety, insomnia and depression, should only be given for a limited period.
But they are often seen by care home staff as an easy way to calm dementia patients.
Previous research has suggested that at least 1,800 dementia sufferers die each year from the ‘chemical cosh’ drugs.
Just one in five of the 180,000 dementia patients prescribed the anti-psychotic drugs benefit, meaning nearly 150,000 are given them needlessly, the government-commissioned report found.
Now, new research suggests that antipsychotics can raise the risk of a potentially fatal stroke.
Researchers at the National Taiwan University claim that stroke risk is greatest in patients who are older or who have dementia.
Writing in the journal Biological Psychiatry, they found that the risk is also linked to the duration and dosage of treatment.
Patients who received high doses of antipsychotic treatment, or who were treated for a short period of time, were at greater risk of stroke.
The researchers believe this suggests the risk is highest in the initial weeks of antipsychotic treatment and for those with a higher average daily dose.
In their study, the Taiwanese scientists focused on the wide range of brain mechanisms targeted by antipsychotic medications.
‘The stroke risk profiles from this study suggest that it may be possible to use antipsychotics more safely in the elderly,’ said Dr John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.
The researchers recommended that doctors start antipsychotics at low dosages, closely monitoring for side-effects in the initial treatment, particularly for individuals who are older or who have dementia.
An Alzheimer’s Society spokesperson said: ‘Tens of thousands of people with dementia are having their lives put at risk every day by being inappropriately prescribed this “chemical cosh” which can double the risk of death, treble the risk of stroke and can leave people unable to walk or talk.
‘Whatever the situation, antipsychotics should only ever be used as a last resort. They should be prescribed at low dosages and should be closely monitored.
‘Only by empowering staff with the knowledge they need to understand dementia and the person behind the condition can we ensure that the inappropriate prescribing of these harmful is stamped out for good.’
Dr Clare Walton, Research Communication Officer from the Stroke Association, said: ‘This research shows doctors need to be cautious about the dose and type of antipsychotics they prescribe, especially for older people or anyone at risk of stroke.
‘If antipsychotics are being used, we recommend patients are closely monitored for the first few weeks when stroke risk seems to be highest.’
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: ‘This study provides yet more evidence highlighting the potential dangers of antipsychotics for people with dementia.
‘Research funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK revealed in 2009 that long-term use of these drugs increases the risk of death for people with dementia, and we have since seen positive steps to reduce their use.
‘Where antipsychotics are prescribed for these people it’s vital that their use is closely monitored. Symptoms such as agitation and aggression can be extremely difficult for doctors and carers to deal with, and research must continue into alternative treatments for these symptoms.’