When Less is More, but Still Not Enough: Why Focusing on Limiting Antipsychotics in People With Dementia Is the Wrong Policy Imperative

Helen C. Kales, Laura N. Gitlin, Constantine G. Lyketsos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Antipsychotic reductions have been the primary focus of efforts to improve dementia care in nursing homes by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services National Partnership. Although significant antipsychotic reductions have been achieved, this policy focus is myopic in 2 ways; there is no evidence for any increases in use of nonpharmacologic interventions, and there are indications for compensatory increases in the use of other (unmeasured) sedating psychotropics. This increased use of other sedating psychotropics is more concerning than the antipsychotics that they replaced, as there is even less support of efficacy for behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) and ample proof of harms, including mortality. The current paradigm of “assessment” and “treatment” for BPSD is largely cursory and reflexive, with little effort put forth to understand possible underlying causes. This contrasts with the methodical, evidence-based way the field handles other symptoms considered “medical” (eg, shortness of breath). To move beyond this nonmedical approach to BPSD, we suggest a conceptual model that includes putative causal contributors. Although at their core BPSD are caused by brain circuitry disruptions, such disruptions are theorized to increase the person with dementia's vulnerability to 3 categories of triggers: those related to the (1) patient (eg, pain, hunger, and infection), (2) caregivers (eg, competing priorities, unrealistic expectations, and negative communications), and (3) environment (eg, overstimulation and limited light exposure). Assessing modifiable triggers is inherently person-centered as it enables clinicians to select specific nonpharmacologic strategies to mitigate identified triggers. Assessing triggers and selecting strategies, however, is time-intensive and reflects a paradigm shift necessitating a reorganization of dementia care including compensation for time spent elucidating and addressing modifiable triggers, vs unintendedly incentivizing the use of potentially harmful psychotropics. This paradigm shift should also include the measurement and restriction of any sedating medications for BPSD, particularly without assessment of underlying causes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1074-1079
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of the American Medical Directors Association
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2019


  • long-term care
  • nonpharmacologic treatments
  • Psychotropics
  • sedation
  • substitution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Nursing(all)
  • Health Policy
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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