The use of benzodiazepines and related drugs has a variety of harmful side effects, including drowsiness, higher risk of falls and hip fractures, and mobility problems. It’s long been believed that long‐term use can hasten cognitive decline and increase the risk of dementia. Short‐term negative effects on memory and cognition are also well known. In older people, these risks are even more pronounced, because the elderly are already more prone to falls and declining memory and cognitive function. A study conducted in May of 2018 by the University of Eastern Finland, published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, found that use of benzodiazepines and related drugs is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs mainly used to treat anxiety, but they can also be used to treat insomnia, epilepsy, and alcohol dependence. Some of the common side effects are drowsiness, lightheadedness, confusion, memory impairment, poor balance, all of which are symptoms already associated with aging. Some examples of benzodiazepines include Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan. There is also a class of drugs called nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics, or Z drugs, which are technically not benzodiazepines but have similar effects on the brain. They were given their name because most of the drugs start with the letter z, such as zaleplon, zolpidem, and zopiclone.
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia. It can cause problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. The majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, and it gets progressively worse over time. Some of the more serious symptoms are disorientation, mood and behavior changes, worsening confusion about events, time and place, unfounded suspicions about people, including family, friends and professional caregivers, and difficulty speaking, swallowing, walking, and breathing. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Finnish study, titled “The risk of Alzheimer’s disease associated with benzodiazepines and related drugs: a nested case-control study,” looked at all individuals who received a clinically verified Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis between 2005 and 2011. A dose-response relationship was noted with both cumulative levels of duration and the length of time the drug was used, meaning that the risk of Alzheimer’s increased along with the benzodiazepine usage. Their results showed that 5.7 percent of the Alzheimer’s cases that occurred among benzodiazepine users were attributable to exposure to the drugs. All drug categories, including short and long-acting benzodiazepines and Z drugs, were associated with this higher risk.
Although the increased risk might seem small, it’s enough that doctors should reconsider the practice of prescribing benzodiazepines to older people for long-term use. This is particularly true considering the other negative side effects that can be more pronounced in seniors
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