Dementia pill on horizon? Lithium could be used as preventative treatment

Lithium is a mood stabilizer usually prescribed for conditions such as bipolar disorder and depression. Now British researchers say the treatment could be used to stop the development of dementia.

Analyzing more than 30,000 British patients over the age of 50, scientists from the University of Cambridge show lithium could be used as a preventative treatment. Dementia is the leading cause of death in elderly Western populations, impacting one million British people.

No preventative treatments are currently available for the condition: more than 55 million people worldwide have dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease the most common form. It’s estimated that 5.8 million Americans battle the disease.

In the study, researchers found that 548 patients had been treated with lithium and of those, 9.7 percent were diagnosed with dementia. For those who had not received lithium, 11.2 percent were diagnosed with the same illness.

“The number of people with dementia continues to grow, which puts huge pressure on healthcare systems,” says first author Dr. Shanquan Chen, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry, in a statement. “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 percent.

“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,” Chen continues. “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. 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.”

The findings were published in the journal PLoS Medicine.

Report by South West News Service writer Joe Morgan

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