Non-benzodiazepine hypnotic use for sleep disturbance in people aged over 55 years living with dementia: a series of cohort studies

Kathryn Richardson, George M. Savva, Penelope J. Boyd, Clare Aldus, Ian Maidment, Eduwin Pakpahan, Yoon K. Loke, Antony Arthur, Nicholas Steel, Clive Ballard, Robert Howard, Chris Fox*

*Corresponding author for this work

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BACKGROUND: Sleep disturbance affects around 60% of people living with dementia and can negatively affect their quality of life and that of their carers. Hypnotic Z-drugs (zolpidem, zopiclone and zaleplon) are commonly used to treat insomnia, but their safety and efficacy have not been evaluated for people living with dementia. 

OBJECTIVES: To estimate the benefits and harms of Z-drugs in people living with dementia with sleep disturbance. 

DESIGN: A series of observational cohort studies using existing data from (1) primary care linked to hospital admission data and (2) clinical cohort studies of people living with dementia. 

DATA SOURCES: Primary care study - Clinical Practice Research Datalink linked to Hospital Episode Statistics and Office for National Statistics mortality data. Clinical cohort studies - the Resource Use and Disease Course in Dementia - Nursing Homes (REDIC) study, National Alzheimer's Coordinating Centre (NACC) clinical data set and the Improving Well-being and Health for People with Dementia (WHELD) in nursing homes randomised controlled trial. 

SETTING: Primary care study - 371 primary care practices in England. Clinical cohort studies - 47 nursing homes in Norway, 34 Alzheimer's disease centres in the USA and 69 care homes in England. 

PARTICIPANTS: Primary care study - NHS England primary care patients diagnosed with dementia and aged > 55 years, with sleep disturbance or prescribed Z-drugs or low-dose tricyclic antidepressants, followed over 2 years. Clinical cohort studies - people living with dementia consenting to participate, followed over 3 years, 12 years and 9 months, for REDIC, NACC and WHELD, respectively. 

INTERVENTIONS: The primary exposure was prescription or use of Z-drugs. Secondary exposures included prescription or use of benzodiazepines, low-dose tricyclic antidepressants and antipsychotics. 

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Falls, fractures, infection, stroke, venous thromboembolism, mortality, cognitive function and quality of life. There were insufficient data to investigate sleep disturbance. 

RESULTS: The primary care study and combined clinical cohort studies included 6809 and 18,659 people living with dementia, with 3089 and 914 taking Z-drugs, respectively. New Z-drug use was associated with a greater risk of fractures (hazard ratio 1.40, 95% confidence interval 1.01 to 1.94), with risk increasing with greater cumulative dose (p = 0.002). The hazard ratio for Z-drug use and hip fracture was 1.59 (95% confidence interval 1.00 to 2.53) and for mortality was 1.34 (95% confidence interval 1.10 to 1.64). No excess risks of falls, infections, stroke or venous thromboembolism were detected. Z-drug use also did not have an impact on cognition, neuropsychiatric symptoms, disability or quality of life. 

LIMITATIONS: Primary care study - possible residual confounding because of difficulties in identifying patients with sleep disturbance and by dementia severity. Clinical cohort studies - the small numbers of people living with dementia taking Z-drugs and outcomes not necessarily being measured before Z-drug initiation restricted analyses. 

CONCLUSIONS: We observed a dose-dependent increase in fracture risk, but no other harms, with Z-drug use in dementia. However, multiple outcomes were examined, increasing the risk of false-positive findings. The mortality association was unlikely to be causal. Further research is needed to confirm the increased fracture risk. Decisions to prescribe Z-drugs may need to consider the risk of fractures, balanced against the impact of improved sleep for people living with dementia and that of their carers. Our findings suggest that when Z-drugs are prescribed, falls prevention strategies may be needed, and that the prescription should be regularly reviewed. 

FUTURE WORK: More research is needed on safe and effective management strategies for sleep disturbance in people living with dementia. 

STUDY REGISTRATION: This study is registered as European Union electronic Register of Post-Authorisation Studies (EU PAS) 18006. 

FUNDING: This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 25, No. 1. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-202
Number of pages202
JournalHealth Technology Assessment
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jan 2021


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