Most of us take medications knowing there is a risk of side effects, but that risk is small, right? Surely the FDA ensures the health benefits outweigh these minor inconveniences, right? But what if I told you that if your grandmother took a sleeping pill, she’d be 50% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease? Do I have your attention now?
A study published in the British Journal of Medicine has yielded some startling results. Researchers found that for older adults who took benzodiazepines for at least 90 days, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease was increased by 43% to 51% during a five year period.
The study also revealed that people who were on a long-acting benzodiazepine like diazepam (Valium) and flurazepam (Dalmane) were at greater risk than those on a short-acting one like triazolam (Halcion), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), and temazepam (Restoril).
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a class drugs used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and a range of other conditions. Commonly known as tranquilizers, these medications act directly on the brain and central nervous system, affecting a person’s mood. They are one of the most widely prescribed medications in the U.S., particularly among elderly patients. Benzos are commonly divided in groups:
Short-acting anti-anxiety benzodiazepines
- alprazolam (Xanax)
- lorazepam (Ativan)
- oxazepam (Seresta)
- diazepam (Valium)
Longer-acting anti-seizure and “hypnotic” drugs frequently used to treat insomnia:
- clonazepam (Klonopin)
- flurazepam (Dalmane)midazolam (Versed)
- nitrazepam (Mogadon)
- temazepam (Restoril)
- triazolam (Halcion)
The authors of the study warn that doctors should “carefully balance the benefits and risks when initiating or renewing a treatment with benzodiazepines and related products in older patients.” Although the study only included elderly patients, it is important for people of all ages to discuss the use of benzodiazepines with their health care provider.
It is important to note that benzodiazepines may pose other serious risks for seniors. In 2012, the American Geriatrics Society added benzodiazepines to their list of Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults. The group warned that an increased sensitivity to benzodiazepines and decreased metabolism of long-acting agents could pose serious dangers, stating, “In general, all benzodiazepines increase risk of cognitive impairment, delirium, falls, fractures, and motor vehicle accidents in older adults.”
de Gage, S.B., Moride, Y., Ducruet, T., et al. Benzodiazepine use and risk of Alzheimer’s disease: case-control study. BMJ 2014; 349:g5205. Published September 9, 2014. Accessed October 29, 2014.