Frequent use of sleep medications appears to be associated with increased long-term risk of dementia, particularly among older white adults, according to research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles this week.

“Based on our findings, we recommend that clinicians make more effort to be aware of their patients’ sleep problems including use of sleep aids,” said lead study author Yue Leng, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, in a press release.

Leng and colleagues studied 3,068 black and white community-dwelling older adults aged 70 to 79 years who did not have dementia and were enrolled in the Health, Aging, and Body Composition study. At the beginning of the study, the participants were asked to rate their use of “sleeping pills or other medication” to help them sleep using the following responses: “never,” “rarely (once a month or less),” “sometimes (2 to 4 times per month),” “often (5 to 15 times per month),” or “almost always (16 to 30 times per month).”

A total of 147 (4.8%) participants reported taking sleep medications “sometimes,” and 172 (5.6%) reported “often” or “almost always.” A total of 34 black participants (2.7%) and 138 white participants (7.7%) reported taking sleep medications “often” or “almost always.”

The researchers tracked whether the participants experienced dementia over a 15-year period using hospital records and records of dementia medication use, as well changes in global cognition scores. After controlling for a variety of factors, including body mass index, depressive symptoms, physical activity, and APOE4 genotype, the researchers calculated the risk associated with sleep medication use. The researchers found that those who reported taking sleeping medication “often” or “almost always” were 43% more likely to develop dementia than those who reported “never” or “rarely” taking sleep medications. Whether the change in risk is due to the medications or sleep problems is not yet known, the researchers noted.

Additional analysis revealed that the increased dementia risk among the frequent users was observed only among the white participants (hazard ratio=1.79). There was no association between use of sleep medication and dementia in black participants (hazard ratio= 0.84). The association did not differ by sex.

“Further studies are needed to examine the cognitive effects of different types of sleep medications and to understand potential mechanisms,” the researchers wrote.

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Estimates of Adult Benzodiazepine Use Double.”

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