NHS Digital figures show 656 dementia patients aged 65 and over in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group area were prescribed antipsychotic medication in the six weeks to February 28 – up from 619 in the same period in 2020.
Of those, the vast majority (566) did not have a diagnosis of psychosis.
The statistics mean around 11 per cent of all those with dementia are being prescribed the drugs, which can increase the risk of strokes and accelerate the symptoms of the disease.
Across England, 10 per cent of 427,000 dementia patients were prescribed antipsychotic drugs – which are often used to calm agitated patients – between mid-January and the end of February.
This was up from nine per cent the year before, but the NHS warned the data has likely been impacted by Covid-19, though they cannot estimate how much.
This period corresponds with care homes having to lock down again during the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic, limiting contact from family visitors.
The Alzheimer’s Society dementia charity said it was “extremely concerned” about the rise in the number of prescriptions across England during the pandemic, and called for an urgent government review into the figures.
Following analysis which showed that inappropriate prescriptions of antipsychotic drugs contributed to around 1,800 deaths a year, the Department of Health made reducing their use a national priority in 2009.
But in a recent report, Public Health England said there has been a consistent pattern of higher antipsychotic prescribing rates for dementia patients than before the pandemic.
The Alzheimer’s Society said people with dementia have been worst hit by coronavirus – with many either losing their lives to the disease, or stuck inside care homes.
Fiona Carragher, director of research and influencing at the charity, said: “The majority have been isolated from their loved ones and denied the vital support of their families, and as a result many have experienced a rapid increase in dementia symptoms.
“We must ensure the pandemic doesn’t disrupt the work done over the past few years to move away from the model of ‘medicate first’.
“Healthcare providers cannot fall back on using antipsychotics to manage symptoms, and must instead focus on quality care, tailored to the individual.”
NHS figures also suggest that the number of dementia patients in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough has risen slightly since the pandemic began.
There were an estimated 10,489 patients with dementia in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CCG areas as of February – an increase of 89 from 10,400 in February 2020.
Charity Dementia UK said services have been stretched due to the demands of the pandemic, with thousands of families trying to navigate a complex care system.
Paul Edwards, director of clinical services, said: “Until we get a dementia care system which acknowledges needs and values families’ experiences, then people affected by dementia will continue to be left behind.”
A DHSC spokeswoman said the NHS has doubled the dementia diagnosis rate and halved the prescription of antipsychotics since 2005.
She added: “The Government has already invested £344 million, including beginning new research into managing the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia and finding alternatives to antipsychotic drugs.”
With the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions, more visitors have now been allowed into care homes again.