Will lithium be prescribed to keep dementia at bay in the future? According to a new study published in the journal PLoS Medicine, there’s a possibility.
Lithium has so far been used as a mood stabilizer to treat patients with disorders like BPAD (bipolar affective disorder), depression, hypomania, mania, etc. Sometimes, it’s also prescribed in cases of self-harming or aggressive behavior.
Dr. Shanquan Chen, the lead author of the abovementioned study, states that there are indications dementia could be added to the list of ailments treated with this medicine.
Moreover, the retrospective study included patients treated between 2005 and 2019, whose mean age was 73.9 years. None of them were younger than 50 or had previously been diagnosed with dementia or mild cognitive impairment.
Out of the 29,618 observed patients, 548 had been exposed to lithium treatment, 9.7% of whom were diagnosed with dementia. On the other hand, 11.2% of those who hadn’t been exposed to lithium were diagnosed with the same syndrome.
The research has detected a (subtle) link between decreased risk of dementia and lithium use. The assumption is that this link could be attributed to the mood stabilizer’s neuroprotective effects.
However, the authors note there are certain limitations of this study that have to be taken into account. For instance, the number of people who had been taking lithium was far too small to consider the results sufficiently conclusive.
Most importantly, there was the problem of BPAD interference since this disorder is a significant risk factor for developing dementia.
Namely, over 70% of the patients who’d been prescribed lithium were diagnosed with BPAD. Therefore, it could have easily increased the number of dementia cases in this specific study group, weakening the validity of the research results.
Were lithium’s beneficial effects to be confirmed by larger and more conclusive studies, it would be a groundbreaking discovery in the field of mental health. Globally, 55 million people suffer from this serious syndrome, the most common form of which is Alzheimer’s — in up to 70% of the cases.
Considering the whopping (ever-growing) number of patients, preventing or delaying dementia onset would help take enormous pressure off healthcare systems worldwide, according to Dr. Chen.