Older people who used drugs known as benzodiazepines to relieve anxiety and help them sleep are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and those who use the drugs frequently and in higher doses are at even greater risk, a new study has found.
Benzodiazepines, which include the brand names Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Klonopin, are commonly prescribed to treat insomnia, agitation and anxiety – early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly. But do these medications permit, cause, or even hasten the onset of Alzheimer’s disease?
To investigate this issue further, researchers compared benzodiazepine use among nearly 1,800 elderly patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease with about 7,000 similar patients who were not diagnosed with the cognitive disorder.
Researchers found that among patients 67 years of age and older, those who took low-dose benzodiazepine drugs, or those who took higher doses either briefly or infrequently, were not at greater risk of developing Alzhiemer’s disease five years after they were first prescribed the drugs. However, those who frequently took long-acting versions of benzodiazepines or took them regularly for several months were at increased risk.
Researchers found that patients who took the cumulative equivalent of daily doses for three to six months over five years were about 32 percent more likely than those who took no benzodiazepines to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Patients who took the equivalent of a full daily dose for more than six months were 84 percent more likely to develop the disease compared to patients who did not take the drugs.
Previous research has already established that frequent or regular use of benzodiazepine drugs can slow memory and hinder mental performance. Some studies have also found that regular use of the drugs can reduce the activity of receptors in the brain leading to cognitive decline.
Benzodiazepines warning labels caution that the drugs are not to be taken for more than three months, however many patients stay on the medication for years because they can lead to cognitive decline.
The benzodiazepines researchers focused on for this study included the short-acting anti-anxiety drugs alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), oxazepam (Seresta) and diazepam (Valium); and the longer-acting anti-seizure and “hypnotic” drugs often used to treat insomnia such as clonazepam (Klonopin), flurazepam (Dalmane), midazolam (Versed), nitrazepam (Mogadon), temazepam (Restoril), and triazolam (Halcion).
Commonly prescribed “atypical benzodiazepines,” such as Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata (which include the generics zolpidem, eszopiclone and zaleplon) were excluded from the study.
Source: LA Times