Antipsychotic drug could be killing people

A new study has linked the use of "atypical" antipsychotic drugs to an increased risk of sudden cardiac death. I wish I could say that I was shocked by this finding, but the fact is that I've written to you before about the potential risk of atypical antipsychotic drugs, and I think it's unfortunate that it took a study to find out that these drugs are actually killing people.

Atypical antipsychotic drugs make up the second generation of antipsychotics, which were developed in the 1990s. The "typical" antipsychotic drugs were developed in the 1950s are actually known to increase the risk of sudden cardiac death. For years, it's been thought that atypicals were much safer than typicals, but this new study shows this is not the case.

A team of researchers from the division of pharmachoepidemiology at Nashville's Vanderbilt University School of Medicine found that the risks for patients taking atypical antipsychotics was 2.26 greater than those not taking the drugs. The higher the dose, the higher the risk.

The potential dangers of these drugs include obesity, blood lipid imbalances, and adult- onset (type II) diabetes. All of these conditions can increase the chance of developing heart disease, or cause a greater risk of heart attack and stroke. So the fact that these drugs also seem to boost the risk of sudden cardiac death seems obvious.

These new findings are particularly disturbing because three atypical antipsychotic drugs - risperidone, quetiapine, and olanzapine - racked up a staggering $14.5 billion in international sales in 2007. These are three of the top 10 selling drugs on the planet. And that means a lot of people are at risk.

But the greater problem here is that these drugs are being prescribed more and more for conditions other than their intended use. And unfortunately, seniors are the ones who are most likely to suffer from this practice.

Risperdal is the most frequently prescribed antipsychotic drug in the U.S. And while the FDA has approved it for the treatment of schizophrenia, it's being prescribed to other patients "off label" for dementia patients.

Antipsychotics are also given to Alzheimer sufferers to curb "aggressive behavior" - in spite of the fact that a 2006 study found that antipsychotic drugs provided NO SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENT over placebos in treating the delusions and aggression that accompanies that disease.

Really, that's the double-whammy here: these widely prescribed drugs often don't even work, and yet they pose a massive health risk to the patients they're meant to help.

Study leader Wayne A. Ray, Ph.D said, "I think off-label use should be undertaken very cautiously, and its frequency should be much less than it is currently."

The researchers concluded that under most circumstances, atypical antipsychotics should be used as a last resort after other safer drugs are tried first. And even then, atypicals should be used sparingly. "Absolutely the lowest dose that works should be used, because we found a strong dose response," Ray says.