Long Term Use of Benzodiazepines linked to Increased Risk of Alzheimers
Benzodiazepines such as Valium (diazepam) and more recent long acting types of the drug have been used for many years to treat anxiety, panic attacks, acute stress reactions and sleep disorders. Their long term use has in recent times been less popular because of their link to problems of tolerance, dependence and addiction. There is now evidence that their prolonged use may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
French and Canadian researchers reporting in the British Medical Journal September 9th, found in their research that taking benzodiazepines for three months or more can increase the risk by up to 51%. Using data available from the Quebec health insurance program they looked at older residents living in Quebec. Over six years they identified 1796 cases of Alzheimer’s disease in this group who had been prescribed benzodiazepines. They compared them with 7184 healthy elders for age who lived in the same community.
They found that past use of benzodiazepines over longer periods of time increased the risk backing the suspicion of a direct association ‘even if benzodiazepines use might also be an early marker of a condition associated with an increased risk of dementia’. Conditions such as anxiety and sleep disturbances may also be early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease so the findings of this study are not as clear as they first may appear.
The study authors do say that their findings underscore the need for caution in using benzodiazepines and their inappropriate use should be more closely monitored, especially when prescribed to older adults.
Benzodiazepines are amongst the most commonly prescribed depressant medication in the United States. They were first introduced to the general public in 1957 when Hoffman launched Librium for use in people suffering from anxiety. There are now more than 15 types of this medication and their sedative properties do make them a drug of abuse. Side effects, to which the elderly population are more susceptible include impaired motor function, drowsiness, impaired thinking, confusion, depression, tremors and slurred speech. In higher doses mood swings, hostile and erratic behavior associated with disinhibition, euphoria and slowed reflexes can also be seen. Tolerance to the drug is seen after longer term use and withdrawal from the drug can be difficult.