The Daily Mail reported last week on a new Harvard University study linking sleeping pills to dementia, but this and other similar studies fail to take into account the well established link between sleep apnoea and dementia.
This links is well documented, and a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year found that, “women who have breathing problems during sleep were up to 50 per cent more likely to develop cognitive impairment or dementia than women who sleep normally.”
The important factor missing here is that sleeping pills suppress the respiratory centres, causing the onset of apnoeas, which in turn leads to the increased risk of dementia. The sleeping pills are therefore indirectly responsible for the increased incidence of dementia, so cutting out the pills will only be effective if the patient is not already suffering from sleep apnoea.
Dementia is one of the biggest burdens facing the NHS. Some experts believe the cost of caring for patients will rise to £35billion annually within the next two decades. There are currently 800,000 Britons with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. We therefore need more research into the link between sleep apnoea and dementia, and to start testing all elderly people for sleep apnoea as a preventative measure.