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Safer Use of Antipsychotics in Elderly

A new study suggests it may be possible to lower the risk of stroke associated with antipsychotic use in the elderly.

Researchers say new knowledge on the mechanisms through which antipsychotics increase stroke risk might guide the prescription of safer drugs for elderly patients.

Antipsychotics are prescribed to elderly patients to treat symptoms such as agitation, psychosis, anxiety, insomnia, and depression.

The increased risk of stroke associated with these medications was identified approximately a decade ago and has since been replicated by subsequent studies.

Although the increase in stroke risk is small, some guidelines discourage the prescription of antipsychotics to elderly patients. Experts say that antipsychotic drugs vary in their effects on the body and so it is likely that antipsychotics are not uniform in their effects on stroke risk.

In a new study, researchers focused on the wide range of brain mechanisms targeted by antipsychotic medications. All antipsychotics block the D2 subtype of receptor for the neurotransmitter dopamine.

However, these drugs also act on a range of other receptor targets including the serotonin 5-HT2 receptor, the M1 receptor for the transmitter acetylcholine, and the alpha2 receptor for noradrenaline.

To conduct the study, the researchers matched information from a large national database of insurance claims to what is known about the receptor binding profiles of the antipsychotic drugs.

“We found that antipsychotics with a high binding affinity of alpha2 adrenergic and M1 muscarinic receptors were associated with a greater risk of stroke than the use of other types of antipsychotics,” said Dr. Susan Shur-Fen Gau, corresponding author of the study found in Biological Psychiatry.

They also found that this stroke risk was elevated in patients who were older and had dementia.

Stroke risk was also related to duration and dosage of treatment, with patients who received either short duration of antipsychotic treatment (4 weeks or less) or higher daily doses of treatment showing an increased risk of stroke.

This suggests that risk is highest in the initial weeks of antipsychotic treatment and for those with a higher average daily dose.

“Antipsychotics have a wide range of receptor profiles. The stroke risk profiles from this study suggest that it may be possible to use antipsychotics more safely in the elderly,” commented Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry.

Researchers recommend that clinicians start antipsychotics at low dosages, and closely monitor for side effects in the initial treatment — particularly for individuals with older age and the presence of dementia.

Source: Elsevier

Elderly woman taking medications photo by shutterstock.

Safer Use of Antipsychotics in Elderly

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Safer Use of Antipsychotics in Elderly. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 12 Mar 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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