Antidepressant Use and the Increased Risk of Developing Dementia

The Link Between Antidepressants and Dementia is Becoming More EvidentSeveral studies released recently – here we will focus on two of them: one a two-year study with a large group of elderly (over 65 years of age) participants and the a broader study tracking neurological changes associated with dementia that included participants of all ages – have raised significant red flags about the use of antidepressants and the increased risk of dementia associated with that.

Antidepressant use – prescribed and non-prescribed (I admit I am still surprised when I hear people say “I just got a ____________ (fill in the blank) from my friend because I was depressed and I felt better so now when I need one I just go and get it from them”) – is now ubiquitous in the Western world.

As the senior author, Dr. Darrell Mousseau, of one of the studies we will summarize states, “They’re [antidepressants] being prescribed ‘off label,’ meaning for nondepression related situations. They’re being prescribed to very young children and to the very old. They’re almost becoming the antibiotic of this century: ‘If you’ve got a disease, take an SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor]. It’s going to help you in one way, shape or form.”

Before I go any further, let me say that there are people who, not only benefit from, but in fact need, antidepressants so I am not wholesale dismissing the efficacy of these medications for a select group of people for whom they are effective.

However, every medication (and medical treatment of any kind, for that matter), no matter what its efficacy and benefits, has side effects. Therefore, a thoughtful risk analysis weighing the benefits versus the risks and a careful examination to understand the cause of a medical issue and to treat that cause correctly should be undertaken.

In the case of depression, there has been a wealth of new neuroscience research in the last two years that has completely blown the “one-size-fits-all” assumption that all depression stems solely from a problem with the neurotransmitters serotonin and noradrenaline (which the whole class of SSRIs, including Prozac, Effexor, and Zoloft, among others, targets) out of the water.

So the overprescribing of SSRIs both for depression and off-label uses not related to depression is the equivalent of malpractice. And its potentially endangering the long-term neurological health of a lot of people.

The first study that looked at the relationship between antidepressants and the increased risk of developing dementia was conducted over two years and involved over 3,500 elderly people.

The outcome of that study showed a much higher risk of developing dementia in the participants who were taking antidepressants than the participants with depression who were not prescribed antidepressants.

One of the significant and dangerous side effects of SSRIs that the study uncovered – and was very likely a factor in the increased dementia risk – is that SSRIs caused serious disruptions in sleep.

The second study, done in Canada, suggests that the risk of developing dementia is twice as high for people taking SSRIs than it is for people not taking them.

The most startling finding of this study showed that people under 65 years of age who were taking SSRIs had a even higher risk of developing dementia than people 65 or older who were taking SSRIs.

My takeaway?

There is a place for SSRIs. There are people for whom the benefit is specific, targeted, and greater than the risks.

However, the liberal and bullet-spraying prescribing policy among medical professionals – who, quite frankly, don’t, for the most part, do any more professional education than the minimum they are required to keep their medical licenses, and certainly do not keep up with the latest medical and neuroscience research – of SSRIs to a large segment of the population (think about how many people you personally know who are on some form of antidepressant, as opposed to 10 or 15 years ago, when you hardly knew anybody who was taking them) is endangering the long-term neurological health of a lot of people.

And that should be unacceptable to you and me.

In the end, each of is responsible for our own health and well-being.

While medical professionals have value and can provide some insight, guidance, and, most importantly, acute care when needed, we should be doing our homework and advocating for our best physical and neurological health – and, even more critically, for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease who are depending on us to advocate for them and in their best interests at all times – in our medical care.

When we turn the full responsibility over to anyone else – even those in the medical profession – and blindly follow them and do what they say, without even knowing or understanding what it means for us, then we acting both ignorantly and foolishly.

None of us can afford to do that.

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