Antidepressants in old age may increase risk of dementia, Israeli study finds
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Antidepressants in old age may increase risk of dementia, Israeli study finds

Researchers followed 71,000 Israelis, found 3 times as many dementia diagnoses among depressed; some experts argue depression may be an early sign, not a cause

Illustrative image of a elderly patient with Parkinson's disease (Highwaystarz-Photography; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of a elderly patient with Parkinson's disease (Highwaystarz-Photography; iStock by Getty Images)

A study of over 71,000 elderly Israelis suggests people over the age of 60 who use antidepressants may have as much as three times the risk of developing dementia as those who don’t use the drugs.

From 2013 to 2017, the study tracked dementia onset in a huge sample of Israeli patients over 60 whose medical backgrounds were already familiar to researchers.

Among its findings: While 2.6 percent of those who did not take anti-depression drugs developed dementia during the period, among those who did take the drugs the figure soared to 11%.

The study was led by researchers at the University of Haifa, headed by Prof. Stephen Levine, with participants from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

Experts disagreed on the significance and meaning of the link found in the study, which was published on May 28 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

The results suggest “antidepressant exposure in old age may increase the risk of dementia,” the researchers said.

An elderly couple walk on Jaffa street in downtown Jerusalem on February 20, 2017. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

They suggested the antidepressants may cause damage to nerve cells, speeding the onset of the various neurological diseases known as dementia.

But Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper quoted several experts who suggested the link may go in reverse — not that depression itself or antidepressant drugs lead to dementia, but that depression is one of dementia’s earliest symptoms.

“There is no evidence that antidepressants cause dementia. There is an association as people with dementia are more likely to be depressed and therefore more likely to be on antidepressants,” said Prof. Wendy Burn, president of the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists.

University College London’s Prof. Rob Howard, an expert on elderly psychiatry, agreed.

“It used to be thought that depression was a risk factor for dementia but when you look at the longer term, over 20 years before someone develops dementia, that isn’t the case. It seems to be only proximal to diagnosis of dementia and people with depression have probably had progressive [brain damage] for a number of years,” he told the Daily Mail.

Just 5.2% of the 71,515 people in the study took the drugs, or 3,688 patients, with 407 of them developing dementia during the period of the study. Among the much larger sample of 67,827 who did not take the drugs, 1,769 developed dementia during the study period.

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