Excess Medications – Poor Sleep linked to Dementia and Alzheimer’s?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.


Sleep Walking.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

New research is linking a lot of factors with cognitive decline.

Came across some interesting research recently about factors that may be increasing people’s risk of cognitive decline.  Both excessive medication and sleep problems appear to be risk factors for memory and thinking problems. We are a long way from any final answers when it comes to cognitive decline but some of this research is so convincing that I wanted to share it with you.

Poor sleep in the first few hours of the night, the time when memories and thoughts are processed and stored appears to be connected to eventual dementia. Low levels of oxygen also increased this risk.

There is a brief article on this research at PSYBLOG

One study does not make for final answers. This study was on only Japanese men and done in Hawaii. It made the connection between the poor sleep, low oxygen, and dementia but did not find a connection to the subsequent development of Alzheimer’s. The source for the research? Published in Neurology.

So is the answer to this poor sleep and cognitive decline to put more people, seniors in particular, on sleep medications? Not really.

Turns out that many seniors are being badly over medicated. The older you get the more likely it is that a doctor will prescribe sleep medications or anti-anxiety medications. The increase in anti-anxiety meds is troubling as research has told us that many seniors become less anxious not more so as they age.

The National Institute of mental Health published an article titled – Despite Risks, Benzodiazepine Use Highest in Older People.

This article reported on research into the prescribing of Benzodiazepines for older adults. The older you get the more likely it is that your doctor will prescribe a benzodiazepine for either poor sleep or anxiety. As you age you are more likely to be prescribed higher doses, for longer periods of time.

Most of these Benzodiazepines were prescribed by primary care doctors rather than by psychiatrists. Now here is the problem with that.

Taking lots of Benzodiazepines appears to increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The more you take the higher the risk. Take these meds for 180 days or more and your risk of developing Alzheimer’s DOUBLES, or so this one study tells us.

The text of this article as published is on PubMed.

There is another reason to be concerned about this high use of Benzodiazepines among seniors. That is the interaction between Alcohol and Benzodiazepines. We know from the experiences in the substance abuse treatment field that as we age the body’s ability to remove chemicals from your body declines. Any drug use by the elderly is risky. Just because the drugs are prescription ones does not eliminate the risks.

We also know that a large part of drug overdose deaths is the result of the interaction of alcohol and Benzodiazepines. People are tempted to use alcohol to sleep and when this is done to excess the result is poor sleep not improved sleep.

What is the solution?

Please do not suddenly stop taking prescribed medications based on this blog post or any other online source. If in doubt talk with your doctor. Do all you can to manage your health concerns, get that diabetes or heart condition under control. Lose weight, all those other health things you know you should do. No pill is a substitute for a healthy lifestyle.

Consider all those things that we loosely refer to as “sleep hygiene.” There are lifestyle changes that can help you sleep better. Also if emotional problems are impacting your sleep or causing you anxiety or depression, consider counseling or therapy for those mental health issues. You do not need to be “mentally ill” to benefit from counseling.

Science has not given us a cure for cognitive decline just yet, that may never happen. It is possible to do everything right and still develop some cognitive loss. But until we have a better answer to this problem do all you can to reduce the risks and get more mileage out of that brain of yours.

P. S. There have been a couple of broken links in these posts recently. Who knew that links could be so fragile? If you find a bad link please let me know and I will attempt to fix it.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.