Taking sleeping pills increases risk of dementia — especially if you’re White

SAN FRANCISCO — The notion of popping a pill for easier, longer sleep certainly sounds convenient, but researchers from the University of California-San Francisco may make many think twice about reaching for some Ambien. Their study finds that various sleeping medications, including Benzos, Ambien, and antidepressants, can increase the risk of developing dementia — particularly among White people.

However, the research team adds that both the type and quantity of medication may play roles in explaining the higher risk. Notably, this work follows earlier research that had found African Americans actually have a higher likelihood than Caucasians of developing Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia. That project also concluded African Americans have different risk factors and disease manifestations of dementia.

For this most recent study, study authors analyzed roughly 3,000 older adults without dementia, who lived outside of nursing homes. All of those individuals were part of the Health, Aging and Body Composition study, with researchers following them for an average of nine years. Participants’ average was 74 years-old, and 42 percent were Black, while 58 percent were Caucasian.

Over the course of the study, 20 percent of those participants developed dementia. White participants who “often” or “almost always” took sleep medications displayed a 79-percent higher risk of developing dementia in comparison to those who “never” or “rarely” used sleeping pills. Among Black participants specifically, a group whose consumption of sleep aids in general was markedly lower, frequent users didn’t appear all that more likely to develop dementia in comparison to those who abstained completely or rarely used sleep medications.

“Differences may be attributed to socio-economic status,” says first author Yue Leng, PhD, from the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Weill Institute for Neurosciences, in a university release. “Black participants who have access to sleep medications might be a select group with high socio-economic status and, thus, greater cognitive reserve, making them less susceptible to dementia.”

“It’s also possible that some sleep medications were associated with a higher risk of dementia than others.”

White people are 3 times more likely to use sleeping pills

Study authors note that Caucasians (7.7%) were about three times more likely than Blacks (2.7%) to take sleep meds often (5 to 15 times monthly) or almost always (16 times a month to daily usage). Whites were also nearly twice as likely to use benzodiazepines (Halcion, Dalmane, and Restoril) — which doctors often prescribe to treat chronic insomnia.

Moreover, the study finds Caucasians were 10 times as likely to use trazodone, an antidepressant sold under the brand names Desyrel and Oleptro, which doctors also prescribe as a sleep aid. White people were also seven times more likely to take “Z-drugs,” like Ambien.

In summation, Dr. Leng says future studies could provide further clarity on the cognitive risks or rewards of sleep medications, as well as the influence of one’s race. All in all, though, it’s probably a smart idea to avoid these medications whenever possible.

“The first step is to determine what kind of sleep issues patients are dealing with. A sleep test may be required if sleep apnea is a possibility,” Leng concludes. “If insomnia is diagnosed, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) is the first-line treatment. If medication is to be used, melatonin might be a safer option, but we need more evidence to understand its long-term impact on health.”

The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer s Disease.

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