Can medicines help?
Treatment with medicines is often used to try to improve the sleep of people with dementia. Since the source of the sleep problems may be changes in the brain caused by dementia, it is not clear whether normal sleeping pills are effective for people with dementia, and there are worries that the medicines could cause significant side effects (harms).
The purpose of this review
In this updated Cochrane review, we tried to identify the benefits and common harms of any medicine used to treat sleep problems in people with dementia.
Findings of this review
We searched the medical literature up to March 2016 for all randomised trials that compared any medicine used for treating sleep problems in people with dementia with a fake medicine (placebo). We found six trials (326 participants) that investigated three medicines: melatonin (four trials), trazodone (one trial), and ramelteon (one trial). The ramelteon trial and one melatonin trial were commercially funded; the other trials had non-commercial funding sources. Limited information was available for the ramelteon trial, and it came from the trial's sponsor. Overall, the evidence was of low quality, meaning that further research is very likely to affect the results.
Participants in the melatonin and trazodone trials almost all had moderate to severe dementia, while those in the ramelteon trial had mild to moderate dementia.
The four melatonin trials had a total of 222 participants. From the evidence we found, we could be moderately confident that melatonin did not improve sleep in patients with dementia due to Alzheimer's disease. No serious harms were reported.
The trazodone trial had 30 participants. Because it was so small, we could only have limited confidence in its results. It showed that a low dose of the sedative anti-depressant trazodone, 50 mg, given at night for two weeks, increased the total time spent asleep each night by an average of 43 minutes. This medicine improved sleep efficiency (the percentage of time in bed spent sleeping), but had no effect on the time spent awake after falling asleep, or on the number of times the participants woke up at night. No serious harms were reported.
The ramelteon trial had 74 participants. The limited information available did not provide any evidence that ramelteon was better than placebo. There were no serious harms caused by ramelteon.
The trials did not report on some of the outcomes which interested us, including quality of life and the impact on carers.
Shortcomings of this review
Although we searched for them, we were unable to find any trials of other sleeping medications that are commonly prescribed to people with dementia. All of the participants had dementia due to Alzheimer's disease, although sleep problems are also common in other forms of dementia.
We concluded that there is very little evidence to guide decisions about medicines for sleeping problems in dementia. Any medicine used should be used cautiously, with a careful assessment of how well it works, and its side effects in individual patients. More trials are needed to inform medical practice, with a particular need for trials investigating medicines that are commonly used for sleep problems in dementia. It is essential that trials include careful assessment of side effects.
We discovered a distinct lack of evidence to help guide drug treatment of sleep problems in dementia. In particular, we found no RCTs of many drugs that are widely prescribed for sleep problems in dementia, including the benzodiazepine and non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, although there is considerable uncertainty about the balance of benefits and risks associated with these common treatments. From the studies we identified for this review, we found no evidence that melatonin (up to 10mg) helped sleep problems in patients with moderate to severe dementia due to AD. There was some evidence to support the use of a low dose (50 mg) of trazodone, although a larger trial is needed to allow a more definitive conclusion to be reached on the balance of risks and benefits. There was no evidence of any effect of ramelteon on sleep in patients with mild to moderate dementia due to AD. This is an area with a high need for pragmatic trials, particularly of those drugs that are in common clinical use for sleep problems in dementia. Systematic assessment of adverse effects is essential.