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Hosted by Editor in Chief Lorenzo Norris, MD, Psychcast features mental health care professionals discussing the issues that most affect psychiatry.

Oct 14, 2020

Sanjay Gupta, MD, conducts a Masterclass on treating geriatric patients with symptoms of dementia, particularly amid the restrictions tied to COVID-19.

Dr. Gupta is chief medical officer at BryLin Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. He is also is a clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the State University of New York, Syracuse, and is affiliated with SUNY at Buffalo. Dr. Gupta attends at 8-10 nursing homes.

He disclosed serving on the speakers’ bureaus of AbbVie, Acadia, Alkermes, Intra-Cellular Therapies, Janssen, and Otsuka.

Take-home points

  • Common neuropsychiatric symptoms in patients with dementia include agitation, aggression, delusions, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. One-third of community-dwelling elders and between 60%-80% of nursing facility patients have these neuropsychiatric symptoms.
  • The most common medication class Dr. Gupta uses is antipsychotics. The use of these medications in individuals with dementia is off label. The Food and Drug Administration maintains a black-box warning on the use of antipsychotics for geriatric patients because of the increased risk of sudden death.
  • Risperidone is supported by the most data, then olanzapine, then aripiprazole, and finally quetiapine. Quetiapine has very limited data to support its efficacy. Most antipsychotics have modest efficacy data for their use in this population. The riskiest adverse effects are cardiovascular adverse events, which are higher in risperidone.
  • Dr. Gupta starts risperidone at a low dose of 0.25 mg taken by mouth b.i.d. and titrates to a maximum dose of 2 mg/24 hours. The starting dose for olanzapine is 2.5 mg up to a maximum dose of 10 mg. The starting dose of aripiprazole is 1 mg, and maximum dose 5 mg or less.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (most commonly sertraline or citalopram), the atypical antidepressant mirtazapine, and anticonvulsants (valproic acid) are also used for agitation in dementia but there is limited evidence for their efficacy. Melatonin and trazodone have a positive effect on sleep that can have downstream improvement on aggressive behaviors.


  • To choose an effective treatment, it’s essential to obtain a detailed history of the symptoms from patients and collateral, such as relatives and staff members from the facility. Staff members can be educated about what information is most important to the clinician, or they may provide vague information, such as “the patient is confused.” Specific symptoms that can be used guide treatment include the presence of disorganized thoughts, delusions and paranoia, or visual and/or auditory hallucinations; the timing of the behavior (day vs. night); and patterns of aggressive behaviors.
  • Dr. Gupta emphasizes that it’s important to rule out delirium as the cause of agitation by evaluating underlying medical issues with laboratory evaluations, and when possible, a physical exam.
  • Antipsychotics work best in the context of aggression driven by paranoia and/or delusions of persecution. Antipsychotics seem to work less well for general agitation that may be driven by triggers that need to be uncovered through investigation of the history and environment. Reasons for agitation and aggression might include sensory or activity deprivation, difficulty emptying bladder or bowels, or depression and loneliness, both of which are prevalent during the pandemic.
  • Adverse effects of antipsychotics will be greater in older adults, and include sedation, gait problems that increase the risk of falls, and extrapyramidal or Parkinsonian symptoms. In a geriatric patient, tardive dyskinesia can occur with as little as 1 month of exposure to an antipsychotic, compared with 3 months in younger adults.
  • Before starting an antipsychotic, the clinician must obtain informed consent from the health-care proxy and inform them that using antipsychotics in a patient with dementia is a non–FDA-approved treatment with a black-box warning.
  • Gradual dose reduction, a Medicare policy about the use of psychotropic medications within nursing homes, is defined as “stepwise tapering of a dose to determine if symptoms, conditions, or risks can be managed by a lower dose or if the dose or medication can be discontinued.” Dr. Gupta addresses this policy by assessing which medications are essential and often stopping some medications once the patient is started on antipsychotics.


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Maher AR et al. JAMA. 2011 Sep 28;306(12):1359-69.

Schneider LS et al. JAMA. 2005 Oct 19;294(15):1934-43.

Seitz DP et al. Cochrane Database Sys Rev. 2001 Feb 16;(12):CD0089.

Ballard C et al. Cochrane Database Sys Rev. 2006 Jan 25. doi: 10.1002/14651858.

Ballard C, Waite J. Cochrane Database Sys Rev. 2006 Jan 25;(1):CD003476.

Department of Health & Human Services. State Operations Manual Surveyor Guidance Revisions Related to Psychosocial Harm in Nursing Homes. 2016 Mar 25.

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Show notes by Jacqueline Posada, MD, associate producer of the Psychcast; assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, Washington; and staff physician at George Washington Medical Faculty Associates, also in Washington. Dr. Posada has no conflicts of interest.

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