Long-term use of popular insomnia and anxiety drugs, such as Xanax, Valium, Ativan and others, may increase the risk of dementia later in life, according to the findings of new research.
In a study published this week by the British Medical Journal, French and Canadian researchers indicate that the popular class of drugs known as benzodiazepines were associated with a 50% greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers conducted a case control study using data on about 9,000 people from the Quebec health insurance program database, looking at 1,796 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease over a six year period and comparing them with 7,184 control subjects. All of those involved in the study were over the age of 66 and living between 2000 and 2009.
The study found that those taking the drugs were 51% more likely to experience memory-deteriorating condition. Some dose-specific responses were found, as long-acting drugs carried a 70% increased risk while drugs with a shorter half-life increased the risk by an average of just 43%.
“Benzodiazepine use is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The stronger association observed for long term exposures reinforces the suspicion of a possible direct association, even if benzodiazapine use might also be an early marker of a condition associated with an increased risk of dementia,” the researchers concluded. “Unwarranted long term use of these drugs should be considered as a public health concern.”
Dementia Risk Found in Previous Study
The findings come about two years after the same team of researchers published a report in the British Medical Journal which also linked benzodiazepine use to an increased risk of dementia.
Researchers found that almost a quarter of patients developed dementia after being given the drugs. Similarly, they estimated that users of the drugs faced a 50% greater risk of dementia than their peers.
Benzodiazepines are a group of drugs known as central nervous system depressants, which are used as sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs used to treat a wide array of illnesses including insomnia, seizures, muscle spasms and anxiety.
The group of anti-anxiety, sedative drugs is widely prescribed in more than 65 countries. In France more than 30 percent of people over the age of 65 use benzodiazepines. This class of drug was first marketed in the U.S. in 1963 as diazepam, also known as Valium. Current brands of BZD include Xanax, Ativan, Niravam, Paxal and Klonopin.
Common side effects of benzodiazepine include dizziness, drowsiness, hypotension, nausea, blurred vision and increased dependence of the drug if used continually, in spite of the common recommendation not to use the drug for more than a several weeks. Many experts warn against prescription of the drugs for the elderly due to many of the common side effects, such as dizziness and drowsiness, which may lead to a higher occurrence of serious falls.
Other cognitive side effects from benzodiazepines are highly debated in the medical community, with many researchers agreeing the drugs affect areas of cognition, can cause amnesia, and can interfere with the formation of long-term memories.