Researchers: Dementia drugs increase risk of death

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Elderly dementia patients were 54% more likely of dying within 12 weeks of starting drugs known as atypical antipsychotics, compared with peers who took placebos, researchers say.

Among the more than 5,100 study subjects, 3.5% of those using the special drugs died, compared with 2.3% of those who took benign pills. Scientists said the results reinforce the need for new warning labels on the medications, which may be sold under brand names such as Seroquel, Risperdahl, Abilify and Zyprexa. The drugs are approved for treating schizophrenia and bipolar disease but not dementia in seniors, though such "off-label" uses are legal.

The study's lead author, Dr. Lon Schneider, a psychiatrist from the University of Southern California, said findings should create a sense of caution "but not a great sense of fear." "These drugs are clinically needed and there are actually few alternatives" for elderly dementia patients, Schneider said.

Researchers pooled results from 15 earlier studies to reach their findings. They did not provide information on main causes of death for study subjects. However, in April, the Food and Drug Administration warned that the drugs have been linked to pneumonia and heart failure in seniors. An account of the study appears in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (http://www.jama.ama-assn.org).