This Medication Could Slash Dementia Risk, New Study Finds


The threat of dementia looms with age, with many people fearing memory loss and other physical and psychological side effects of the condition. No treatment currently exists, but as dementia now affects over 55 million people, with new cases increasing at an alarming rate—the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates an increase of 10 million cases annually—much research has been geared toward finding one. Developing dementia does not have to be inevitable though, and new data may even provide some comfort to those prescribed a specific medication. Read on to learn more about the treatment that could decrease your odds of developing this debilitating disease.

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A new study found that lithium could reduce the risk of dementia in people over 50.

Lithium is a mood stabilizer used to treat mania in patients with bipolar disorder, and while it is not approved by the Federal Drug Administration for treatment of depression, it is often prescribed "off-label," according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Findings recently published in PLOS Medicine found an association between lithium use and a decreased risk of developing dementia in people over the age of 50, after controlling for sociodemographic factors that could also affect diagnosis. Lithium has previously been suggested as a treatment for dementia, but there has been limited population-level research to support its potential, the study authors noted.

According to Discover Magazine, the drug was actually the first treatment used for mental illness, having been discovered in the 1940s by John F. J. Cade. When the psychiatrist injected 10 bipolar patients with lithium, all of them improved. Now, the drug is used as the first-line treatment for bipolar disorder in the U.S., but its use is accompanied by several side effects such as headache, nausea, and changes in mood and appetite, as well as rarer complications such as lithium toxicity.

Researchers compared records of patients who were prescribed lithium and those who were not.
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Researchers from the University of Cambridge in the U.K. obtained electronic clinical records obtained from secondary mental health services in Cambridge and Peterborough National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust. A total of 548 patients who had been prescribed lithium and 29,070 patients who had not been prescribed the drug were included in the analyses. All patients were over the age of 50 and had an average age of 73.9 years.

Of those taking lithium over a mean period of 4.8 years, investigators found that 9.7 percent were diagnosed with dementia during this period—6.7 percent with Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, and 2.6 percent with vascular dementia, another major form. Those who were not taking lithium, in comparison, had a higher risk of developing dementia. Over a period of 4.3 years, 11.2 percent of these patients developed the condition, 8.1 percent of whom were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and 2.6 percent of whom were diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Interestingly, results were more pronounced in patients who had been taking lithium for less than one year or more than five, when compared with patients who had exposure somewhere in the middle (between one and five years). Researchers did note the relatively small number of patients using lithium, which limits study results. In addition, 73 percent of study participants who had been exposed to lithium had mania/bipolar disorder. While their results "were in the opposite direction," the condition has previously been cited as a significant risk factor for dementia diagnosis.

This is why researchers think lithium may be effective in treating or preventing Alzheimer's disease.

Lithium could have potential in other neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and stroke. But for Alzheimer's disease specifically, lithium blocks a certain protein that is directly involved with the formation of abnormalities in a patient's brain.

"There's an enzyme called glycogen synthase kinase, or GSK3, which is involved in the abnormal phosphorylation of tau protein, which makes tangles in Alzheimer's disease," Rob Howard, professor of Old Age Psychiatry at University College London, explained to Medical News Today. "And lithium is a potent inhibitor of that enzyme…This isn't the first study to have shown the link between lithium use and reduced potential risk."

Trials investigating this association have had mixed results, according to Discover Magazine, and some believe lithium may be more beneficial as a preventative measure than in improving existing patients' cognitive ability.

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How does this affect my risk of being diagnosed with dementia?
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Research has shown promise as of late, as studies have explored the potential of reduced dementia risk simply by starting your day with a high-fiber meal or taking more trips to the sauna. While not everyone is prescribed lithium—as it is a serious drug used explicitly for mood disorders—and findings are not generalizable at the moment, these results do hold some promise for the larger field of dementia research.

"Overall, when I looked at the paper, I was very interested and excited about it because we're always looking at new ways to understand and potentially treat, slow, and prevent dementia," Christopher Weber, PhD, director of Global Sciences Initiatives, Alzheimer's Association, told Medical News Today. "And this is just another avenue that scientists are looking at…to reduce your dementia risk."

According to researchers, new findings suggest that lithium could have potential as a disease-modifying therapy for dementia, but the hypothesis will need to be evaluated in further clinical trials.

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