Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D. is a therapist, researcher and author with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Doctorate in Naturopathy. Dr. Fredricks works
A new study conducted by researchers from France and Canada has found that the widely prescribed class of drugs benzodiazepines may be associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
In the U.S. alone, over 5 million people are currently diagnosed with AD and that number is expected to triple by 2025. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 36 million are thought to be affected worldwide, with that number increasing to 115 million by 2050. Some of the same researchers on the current study published similar findings in 2012, concluding that the elderly in particular have a 50% increase in the risk of developing dementia after using benzodiazepines.
Benzodiazepines, which were first developed in the 1950s, have been widely used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines have long been associated with short-term cognitive impairment, and have been known to be highly addictive and extensively abused.
The benzodiazepines discussed by the researchers were short-acting anti-anxiety drugs Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Seresta, and long-acting hypnotic and anti-seizure medications used for insomnia: Klonopin, Dalmane, Versed, Mogadon, Restoril, and Halcion. The sleep medications prescribed as Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata were not included in the analysis because they are considered atypical benzodiazepines.
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For the study, researchers examined the pattern of benzodiazepine use in 1,796 elderly people diagnosed with AD with that of 7,184 elders who did not have the diagnosis. The participants were all over the age of 66, living independently, and with a history of taking low to high doses of benzodiazepine as a prescribed medication.
The results of study were most troubling for the people who took frequent higher doses of benzodiazepines, particularly for at least several months. The researchers found that the intensity of a participant’s benzodiazepine use strongly correlated with an increased risk of AD, especially at the end of a five-year period following an initial prescription. Individuals who took the equivalent of daily doses for three to six months over a five-year period were about 32% more likely to develop AD than hose with no drug use. Participants who had taken the cumulative equivalent of a full daily dose for more than six months were 84% more likely to do so.
The researchers concluded their work by pointing out that the exact connection between benzodiazepines and AD is unclear. They also noted that although benzodiazepines are an effective method for managing anxiety disorders and transient insomnia, they are not intended for long-term use of over three months. Additionally, the American Geriatrics Society includes benzodiazepines on its list of drugs deemed inappropriate for seniors.
International medical guidelines for the use of benzodiazepines as treatment for psychiatric problems, such as anxiety disorders and insomnia, recommend they not be taken steadily for more than three months. However, research has indicated that many people take benzodiazepines for years. Additionally, these drugs have been associated with widespread opioid prescription overdoses and fatalities.
Billioti de Gage S, Bégaud B, Bazin F, Verdoux H, Dartigues JF, Pérès K, Kurth T, Pariente A (2012). Benzodiazepine use and risk of dementia: prospective population based study. BMJ 345: e6231. doi:10.1136/bmj.e6231.
Billioti de Gage S, Moride Y. Ducruet T, Kurth T, Verdoux H, Tournier M, Pariente A, Bégaud B. (2014). Benzodiazepine use and risk of Alzheimer’s disease: case-control study. BMJ; 349 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g5205
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