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Research suggests lithium could decrease the risk of developing dementia

Published: 21 March 2022

An analysis of patient health records suggests that lithium, usually prescribed for conditions such as bipolar disorder and depression, may lower the risk of developing dementia. This NIHR-supported research raises the possibility that the drug could be a preventative treatment for the condition.

Dementia is the leading cause of death in elderly Western populations, but no preventative treatments are currently available. More than 55 million people worldwide have dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease the most common form.

Researchers supported by NIHR Cambridge Biolomedical Research Centre conducted a retrospective analysis of the health records of nearly 30,000 patients from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust. The patients had accessed NHS mental health services between 2005 and 2019, were over 50 years old, and had not been previously diagnosed with either mild cognitive impairment or dementia.

Of the 29,618 patients included in the study cohort, 548 patients had been treated with lithium and 29,070 had not. Their mean age was just under 74 years, and approximately 40% of patients were male. 

For the group that had received lithium, 9.7% were diagnosed with dementia (53 patients). For the group that had not received lithium, 11.2% were diagnosed with dementia (3,244 patients). After controlling for factors such as smoking, other medications, and other physical and mental illnesses, lithium use was associated with a lower risk of dementia, both for short and long-term users

Lithium is a mood stabiliser usually prescribed for conditions such as bipolar affective disorder and depression. These conditions are considered to put people at increased risk of dementia. However, this research, published in PLoS Medicine, suggested that patients who received lithium were less likely to develop dementia than those who did not, although the overall number of patients who received lithium was small. 

As this was an observational study, larger clinical trials would be needed to establish lithium as a potential treatment for dementia.

“The number of people with dementia continues to grow, which puts huge pressure on healthcare systems,” said Dr Shanquan Chen from Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry. “It’s been estimated that delaying the onset of dementia by just five years could reduce its prevalence and economic impact by as much as 40%.”

“Bipolar disorder and depression are considered to put people at increased risk of dementia, so we had to make sure to account for this in our analysis. It’s far too early to say for sure, but it’s possible that lithium might reduce the risk of dementia in people with bipolar disorder.”

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