If you’re taking an anti-anxiety medication referred to as a benzodiazepine — such as Xanax, Valium, Ativan or Klonopin — there’s a new eye-opening study out that should get your attention.
When used PRN — on as needed basis — sparingly for times of increased anxiety, these drugs can be life-savers.
But some people use them more frequently. And for those kinds of users, new research suggests an important link to the risk of eventually developing Alzheimer’s.
Benzodiazepines are a common class of medications prescribed for anxiety disorders, as well as for insomnia. Drugs such as Xanax and Ativan regularly top our list of the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medications. They usually have few side effects in most people who take them, and are generally well-tolerated. However, their popularity may have a darker side.
In the new study, Canadian and French researchers wanted to better understand the association of various medical conditions and benzodiazepine use. They looked at the medical records of nearly 1,800 older (most over the age of 80) patients with Alzheimer’s and compared their medical records to those of over 7,000 control subjects.
While both groups had large numbers of benzodiazepine users, the Alzheimer’s group had 51 percent more such users than the control group.
But those who took the drugs longer were more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In older patients who took daily doses for 91 to 180 days, the risk rose 32 percent, compared to those who took none. In those who took daily doses for more than 180 days, the risk was 84 percent higher.
The association persisted whether users took 180 doses over six months or over five years, Dr. Pariente said. It also held when the researchers controlled for health and demographic factors, including conditions like anxiety, depression and insomnia.
The link was stronger to longer-acting forms of the drug, like Valium, than to formulations that leave the body more quickly, like Ativan and Xanax.
To combat the chicken-and-the-egg problem (maybe people with Alzheimer’s disease are simply more likely to take benzodiazepines after developing some of the early symptoms of the disease, but before its actual diagnosis), the researchers were also careful to look at Alzheimer’s patients who had not taken benzodiazepines for five years before their diagnoses.1
If you take benzodiazepines, the key apparently is to not build up a tolerance for them. It also appears important to limit your dose of them over time. In the study, 180 daily doses — whether daily or over the course of 5 years — put someone at this greater risk for Alzheimer’s.
Benzodiazepines are a valuable medication — especially for those who need occasional anxiety relief. But they should not generally be used for long-term sleep or anxiety problems. Studies such as this one point out risks that are only becoming more clear now.
And of course, as with all medications, do not stop taking them without first consulting with your doctor. This Canadian brochure has helped many taper off of benzodiazepines, and it may help you as well.
Read the full article: Study Links Anxiety Drugs to Alzheimer’s
- While a study of this nature can only show a correlation, the researchers did try and rule out all other factors — and did a much better job at it than most correlational studies. [↩]