September 28, 2012 — The British Medical Journal has published a new study linking long-term use of anxiety and insomnia drugs to a 50% increased risk of dementia in the elderly. The researchers looked at a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which includes Ambien, Halcion, Klonopin, Restoril, Valium, Xanax, and more. Many people take these medications for years, despite the fact that good practice guidelines suggest they should only be used for a few weeks.
Although experts understand the short-term effects of benzodiazepines, the long-term side effects are still being investigated. Studies investigating the link between benzodiazepine drugs and dementia have been inconclusive. Furthermore, the underlying disorder that requires treatment with the drugs (insomnia, depression, and anxiety) may predispose a person to dementia.
The researchers sought to investigate whether new use of benzodiazepines increased an elderly person’s risk of dementia. Study participants were screened for 3-5 years prior to the start of the study; those who used benzodiazepines or developed dementia symptoms during this time were excluded from the study. The study involved 1,063 participants, who were followed for the next 15 years.
During the follow-up period, dementia was diagnosed in 253 out of the 1,063 study participants. Of these, 23% of dementia cases occurred in non-benzodiazepine users, and 32% of people who used benzodiazepines. After carefully controlling for known risk factors that could predispose a person to dementia, the researchers found that new use of benzodiazepines is associated with an approximately 50% increased risk of dementia.
The researchers suggested that physicians and government regulatory agencies should consider the fact that there is increasing evidence linking benzodiazepines to dementia when they are prescribing or regulating these medications.
The study does not prove cause-and-effect, but it does raise concerns about the potential long-term side effects of benzodiazepines. In France, where the study was conducted, about 30% of people over 65 are prescribed a benzodiazepine. They are used less in the U.S., but chronic use is still common. The drugs can be habit-forming, and many older Americans take them for several years, despite the fact that they are only meant to be used for a few weeks at a time.
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