Physicians may be missing opportunities to reduce harmful polypharmacy in elderly patients with newly diagnosed dementia, investigators for a large study of Medicare beneficiaries reported.
They found that those with an incident dementia diagnosis were somewhat more likely to initiate central nervous system–active medications and slightly more likely to discontinue cardiometabolic and anticholinergic medications, compared with controls.
According to the authors, time of diagnosis can be a potential inflexion point for deprescribing long-term medications with high safety risks, limited likelihood of benefit, or possible association with impaired cognition.
“Understanding the chronology of medication changes following a first dementia diagnosis may identify targets for deprescribing interventions to reduce preventable medication-related harms, said Timothy S. Anderson, MD, MAS, of the division of general medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, and colleagues in
“Our results provide a baseline to inform efforts to rethink the clinical approach to medication use at the time of a new dementia diagnosis.”
Hundreds of thousands of Americans are diagnosed annually with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, the authors pointed out, and the majority have multiple other chronic conditions. Worsening cognitive impairment may alter the risk-benefit balance of medications taken for these conditions.
Matched cohort study
The sample consisted of adults 67 years or older enrolled in traditional Medicare and Medicare Part D. Patients with an initial incident dementia diagnosis between January 2012 and December 2018 were matched with controls (as of last doctor’s office visit) based on demographics, geographic location, and baseline medication count. Data were analyzed from 2021 to June 2023.
The study included 266,675 adults with incident dementia and 266,675 controls. In both groups, 65.1% were 80 years or older (mean age, 82.2) and 67.8% were female. At baseline, patients with incident dementia were more likely than controls to use CNS-active medications (54.32% vs. 48.39%) and anticholinergic medications (17.79% vs. 15.96%) and less likely to use most cardiometabolic medications (for example, antidiabetics, 31.19% vs. 36.45%).
Immediately following the index diagnosis, the dementia cohort had greater increases in the mean number of medications used: 0.41 vs. –0.06 (95% confidence interval, 0.27-0.66) and in the proportion using CNS-active medications (absolute change, 3.44% vs. 0.79%; 95% CI, 0.85%-4.45%). The rise was because of an increased use of antipsychotics, antidepressants, and antiepileptics.
The affected cohort showed a modestly greater decline in anticholinergic medications: quarterly change in use: −0.53% vs. −0.21% (95% CI, −0.55% to −0.08%); and in most cardiometabolic medications: for example, quarterly change in antihypertensive use: –0.84% vs. –0.40% (95% CI, –0.64% to –0.25%). Still, a year post diagnosis, 75.2% of dementia patients were using five or more medications, for a 2.8% increase.
The drug classes with the steepest rate of discontinuation – such as lipid-lowering and antihypertensive medications – had low risks for adverse drug events, while higher-risk classes – such as insulins and antiplatelet and anticoagulant agents – had smaller or no reductions in use.
While the findings point to opportunities to reduce polypharmacy by deprescribing long-term medications of dubious benefit, interventions to reduce polypharmacy and inappropriate medications have been modestly successful for patients without dementia, the authors said. But the recent, an educational effort aimed at primary care clinicians and patients with cognitive impairment, reduced neither polypharmacy nor potentially inappropriate medications.
Luke D. Kim, MD, a geriatrician at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, agreed that seniors with dementia can benefit from reassessment of their pharmacologic therapies. “Older adults in general are more prone to have side effects from medications as their renal and hepatic clearance and metabolism are different and lower than those of younger individuals. But they tend to take multiple medications owing to more comorbidities,” said Dr. Kim, who was not involved in the study. “While all older adults need to be more careful about medication management, those with dementia need an even more careful approach as they have diminished cognitive reserve and risk more potential harm from medications.”
The authors noted that since decision-makingaligned with patient priorities for older adults without dementia led to reductions in overall medication use, that may be a path forward in populations with dementia.
The study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health. The authors had no competing interests to disclose. Dr. Kim disclosed no competing interests relevant to his comments.