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Cause for alarm:
Antipsychotic drugs for nursing home patients

By Daniel R. Levinson, Special to CNN
May 31, 2011 4:15 p.m. EDT

(CNN) -- When a loved one moves into a nursing home, the support of family and friends is particularly important. This is especially true when the nursing home patient has dementia and can't adequately advocate on his or her own behalf.

A newly released report from my office -- the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services -- makes clear just how crucial it is for families to monitor and ask questions about medications that such patients receive. The report found that too often, elderly residents are prescribed antipsychotic drugs in ways that violate government standards for unnecessary drug use.

Frequently, they are prescribed in ways that don't qualify as medically accepted for Medicare coverage. In addition, the drugs were predominately prescribed for uses that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

But the most potentially troubling finding of the study is this: Researchers found that 88% of the time, these drugs were prescribed for elderly people with dementia.

This is precisely the population that faces an increased risk of death when using this class of drugs, according to the FDA. That's why the agency puts its strongest safety warning, called a "black box warning" on these antipsychotic drugs, cautioning about the risk of death when taken by elderly people with dementia.

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