Antipsychotic drugs can be prescribed to people living with dementia who are experiencing severe agitation or distress, but only as a last resort due to an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks.

There was a concern that the social restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to an increase in antipsychotic prescribing.

Through the BHF Data Science Centre’s CVD-COVID-UK/COVID-IMPACT Consortium, researchers accessed electronic health data through the Secure Anonymised Information Linkage (SAIL) Databank to identify 57,396 people in Wales with a diagnosis of dementia.

Dr Tim Wilkinson, lead author of the study and Clinical Lecturer in Neurology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “While antipsychotic prescribing for people with dementia did increase during the pandemic, our study revealed that it has been steadily rising over a five-year period starting before the pandemic. These findings suggests that COVID-19 may have contributed but is not the driving force. This was unexpected and concerning, and we need to do further studies to better understand the trend.”

The team looked at the rates of antipsychotic prescribing from 1 January 2016 to 1 August 2021. Of the patients included in the study, 11 929 (20.8%) had been prescribed an antipsychotic at any point.

Published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity, the study reveals that there was an increase in antipsychotic prescribing in people with dementia during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, for people in the 60-64 age group and those with Alzheimer’s disease, this increase was observed throughout the five-year period of 2016 to 2021 and therefore before pandemic started.

Director of the BHF Data Science Centre, Chief Scientist of HDR UK and study co-author, Professor Cathie Sudlow, said: “We used a secure setting to access individual-level, de-identified, whole population data for this study. Because of this, we could look deeper into the data to explore the influences of factors such as sex, levels of deprivation, and frailty. Crucially, we could also take into account seasonal trends in prescribing, providing a more accurate picture of how prescribing rates changed over time.”

Read the full paper

Want to know more about this study? Watch Dr Tim Wilkinson’s webinar on these findings.