Sleep aids and dementia: Studies find both risks and benefits



Trazodone was studied because previous research suggests it increases total sleep time in patients with Alzheimer’s disease without affecting next-day cognitive performance.

Trazodone-using patients in the UCSF cohort (n = 25) saw significantly less decline in Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE) scores over 4 years, compared with nonusers (0.27 vs. 0.70 points per year; P = .023), an effect that remained statistically significant even after adjusting for sedative and stimulant use and the expected progression of Alzheimer’s disease pathology. Importantly, the slower decline was seen only among subjects with sleep complaints at baseline and especially those whose sleep improved over time, suggesting that the cognitive benefit was mediated by improved sleep.

In the SOF cohort of 46 trazodone users matched with 148 nonusers, no significant protective or negative effect related to long-term trazodone use was found using the MMSE or the Trails Making Test. In this analysis, however, baseline and longitudinal sleep quality was not captured in the group-matching process, neither was the use of other medications. The patient group was slightly older, and all patients were women.

Dr. Karageorgiou said in an interview that the link between improved sleep, trazodone, and cognition needs to be validated in prospective intervention studies. Trazodone, he said, appears to work best in people with a specific type of insomnia characterized by cortical and behavioral hyperarousal, and its cognitive effect appears limited to people whose sleep improves with treatment. “You’re not going to see long-term cognitive benefits if it’s not improving your sleep,” Dr. Karageorgiou said. “So, whether trazodone improves sleep or not in a patient after a few months can be an early indicator for the clinician to continue using it or suspend it, because it is unlikely to help their cognition otherwise.”

He stressed that physicians need to be broadly focused on improving sleep to help patients with, or at risk for, dementia by consolidating their sleep rhythms.

“Trazodone is not the magic bullet, and I don’t think we will ever have a magic bullet,” Dr. Karageorgiou said. “Because when our brain degenerates, it’s not just one chemical, or one system, it’s many. And our body changes as well. The important thing is to help the patient consolidate their rhythms, whether through light therapy, daily exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or other evidence-based interventions and their combination. The same applies for a person with dementia as for the rest of us.”

None of the investigators outside of the industry-sponsored studies had relevant disclosures.


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