A Finnish study found that people with Alzheimer’s disease who were treated with sedatives called benzodiazepines are more likely to contract pneumonia. The team also studied non-benzodiazepines, known as Z-drugs, but the results were inconclusive.
Benzodiazepines are a type of sedative, or tranquilizer, that reduce irritability or excitement, and are used to treat agitation and other conditions, including anxiety and muscle spasms.
Between 60% and 70% of all patients with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is a brain disease that causes a long-term decrease in the ability to think and remember, and it is severe enough to affect a person’s daily functioning.
Alzheimer’s is distinguished as one form of dementia partly because it involves plaques and tangles in brain tissue, and also because of the early sign of short-term memory loss and the progressively worsening course it takes.
Researchers looked at national registries on 49,484 adults diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease between 2005 and 2011 in Finland. The participants had an average age of 80 years, and almost two-thirds (62.7%) were women. The team studied 5,232 patients taking benzodiazepines and 3,269 patients taking Z-drugs; the remainder were not taking either drug.
They found that patients with Alzheimer’s who were taking benzodiazepines had a 30% increased risk of developing pneumonia, and the risk was highest during the first 30 days of treatment. This finding is in agreement with the incidence of pneumonia in the general population, where pneumonia occurs more frequently in people taking benzodiazepines.
Z-drugs also appeared to increase the risk of developing pneumonia in patients with Alzheimer’s, but the results were less clear-cut than they were for benzodiazepines.
“An increased risk of pneumonia is an important finding to consider in treatment of patients with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Heidi Taipale, PhD, the study’s lead author said a press release. Taipale is at the Kuopio Research Centre of Geriatric Care, University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio, Finland. “Benzodiazepines and Z-drugs are frequently prescribed for this population, and long-term use is typical. Pneumonia often leads to admission to hospital, and patients with dementia are at increased risk of death related to pneumonia,” she said.
The research team believes that given their sedative properties, benzodiazepines may increase the risk of pneumonia by increasing the aspiration of saliva or food into the lungs.
“Benefits and risks of the use of benzodiazepines should be carefully considered for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and include risk of pneumonia,” the authors concluded.