There are more than 55 million of people with dementia. Considering this large number, there’s need of finding a substantial way to treat this disease. It is leading cause of death among elderly Western populations, but no preventative treatments are currently available. Several scientists and researchers are working on this and a new research, led by the University of Cambridge, has give a new ray of hope. The study has identified a link that lithium could decrease the risk of developing dementia.
The research, which conducted a retrospective analysis of the health records of nearly 30,000 patients from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, was published in the journal, ‘ PLoS Medicine.’ The patients who were part of the study were all over the age of 50 and accessed NHS mental health services between 2005 and 2019.
The researchers found the analysis 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. The study also suggested that lithium could be a preventative treatment for dementia and could be progressed to large randomised controlled trials.
“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, the paper’s first author.
“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 per cent,” he added.
There have been studies in the past that proposed lithium as a potential treatment for those who have already been diagnosed with dementia or early cognitive impairment. However, it is unclear whether it can delay or even prevent the development of dementia altogether because the size of the studies have been limited.
Lithium is a mood stabiliser usually prescribed for conditions such as bipolar affective disorder and depression. “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,” said Chen.
Of the 29,618 patients who were part of 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 per cent of patients were male.
For the group that had received lithium, 53, or 9.7 per cent were diagnosed with dementia. For the group that had not received lithium, 3,244, or 11.2 per cent, were diagnosed with dementia.
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. However, since the overall number of patients receiving lithium was small and this was an observational study, larger clinical trials would be needed to establish lithium as a potential treatment for dementia.
Another limitation of the study was the number of patients who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which is normally associated with an increased risk of dementia.
“We expected to find that patients with bipolar disorder were more likely to develop dementia since that is the most common reason to be prescribed lithium, but our analysis suggested the opposite,” said Chen.
“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,” he concluded.