The drugs themselves may not be the problem. Instead, Larson suggested, they could be a sign of chronic medical problems.
"The heavy users [of painkillers] had more diabetes, more arthritis, more signs of heart failure," he said. "It's very likely that what you're seeing is people using these medications because they're beginning to fail in their life."
Dr. Steven Vlad, an epidemiology and rheumatology researcher at Boston University School of Medicine, said the findings are "very much contrary to what a number of other studies have found, and I'm not sure how to fit them into previous research."
In the big picture, he said, "the practical, day-to-day utility of this study is small. We just don't know enough yet."
He agrees with Larson that people should not take the drugs purely to prevent Alzheimer's disease, especially since the medications pose risks of gastrointestinal ulcers, bleeding and kidney disease. "The big issue right now is we don't know how to balance the potential benefits against the known risks," Vlad said.
What to do? Larson said the best strategies to prevent dementia are the usual suspects -- regular exercise, control of blood pressure and no smoking. "These things are really common sense," he said. "Even in late life, they probably do benefit your brain from the standpoint of health."
Learn more about NSAIDs from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
SOURCES: Eric B. Larson, M.D., MPH, executive director, Group Health Center for Health Studies, Seattle; Steven Vlad, M.D., epidemiology and rheumatology researcher, Boston University School of Medicine; April 22, 2009, Neurology, on
All rights reserved