Anti-Anxiety, Sleep Drugs Raise Dementia Risks

An emerging study has found that some popular anti-anxiety and sleep-aid medications raise the risk for developing dementia.

The study revealed that patients who are over the age of 65 and who begin treatment with benzodiazepines, also known as benzos, experienced a 50% increased risk for developing dementia within 15 years, when compared to people who never took the drugs, said The Daily Telegraph. Benzodiazepines includes drugs such as Ativan (lorazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), and Valium (diazepam). A team at the University of Bordeaux, France conducted the research. The research appears in the journal,

The researchers warned against the “indiscriminate widespread use” of the popular drugs, which, it noted, also treat insomnia. “In particular, uncontrolled chronic use of benzodiazepines in elderly people should be cautioned against,” they added.

Researchers looked—over a two-decade period—at 1,063 people, who were an average age of 78 and who had never taken the drugs previously and were not diagnosed with dementia, said The Daily Telegraph. In all, 95 patients began taking a benzodiazepine during the study period. After a 15-year follow-up, 253 people developed dementia; 30 had begun taking a benzodiazepine three-to-five years into the study.

The study revealed that the likelihood of developing dementia in those who had taken the drugs was 4.8 per 100 “person years” while the likelihood in those not taking the drugs was 3.2 per 100 person years, said The Daily Telegraph. The researchers described a “person year” as being a statistical measure equaling one person at risk for developing a disease in a one-year period.

“In this large, prospective, population based study of elderly people who were free of dementia and did not use benzodiazepines until at least the third year of follow-up, new use of benzodiazepines was associated with a significant, approximately 50% increase in the risk of dementia,” the authors wrote. “Benzodiazepines remain useful for the treatment of acute anxiety states and transient insomnia. However, increasing evidence shows that their use may induce adverse outcomes, mainly in elderly people, such as serious falls and fall related fractures,” the team explained, according The Daily Telegraph.

“… physicians should carefully assess the expected benefits of the use of benzodiazepines in the light of these adverse effects and, whenever possible, limit prescription to a few weeks as recommended by the good practice guidelines, the researchers cautioned. Alzheimer’s Society director of research Professor Clive Ballard added: “This is the not the first time it has been suggested that these drugs could have a negative impact on cognition. With this long-term study adding to the evidence, it emphasizes how important it is that we properly monitor how treatments for anxiety or sleep problems are used,” wrote The Daily Telegraph.

As we’ve written, benzodiazepines and prescription sleep drugs are not meant to be taken over long periods of time but some people have likely been taking them for years, basically making it a habitual drug rather than one taken for a specific reason.

We also wrote that a prior study found that prescription sleep aids were linked to increased risks of death, a worrying finding given that some 6-10% of Americans take a prescription sleep medication.

Study participants received prescriptions for sleep aids such as Ambien (zolpidem), Restoril (temazepam), Lunesta (eszopiclone), and Sonata (zaleplon); benzodiazepines, barbiturates; or sedative antihistamines. According to the study, people who take prescription sleep aids may be at increased risks for cancer and are significantly likelier to die prematurely, when compared to people who don’t take sleeping pills. Even more disturbing, according to the research, is that the increased rates were observed even when the drugs were taken at very low levels.

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