A drug group known as benzodiazepines—commonly referred to as ‘benzos’—has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study. Medication sold under labels like Xanax, Ativan and Valium falls under this category. Those types of drugs are used to treat conditions like anxiety, panic disorders, muscle relaxation, seizure control, insomnia and alcohol withdrawal.
Benzodiazepines are safe when they are used for one month and only used when needed, not as a regular daily pill, according to a recent essay in the New England Journal of Medicine written by an expert group of doctors. But when patients treat them more like a daily multivitamin and use them for an extended period, they can become addicted and their risk of experiencing events like cognitive decline, falls and increased rates of emergency visits and hospital admissions goes up.
The new study, published by researchers from the University of Eastern Finland, shows that an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease can be added to the list of side effects that occur when benzodiazepines are taken for a longer period of time. The study looked at over 353,000 participants—some with Alzheimer’s, some without; and some who took benzodiazepines, and some who did not. They looked at medical records dating back to 1995 to determine if participants had ever been prescribed benzodiazepines. For patients taking the drugs, the risk of Alzheimer’s increased by about six percent. They also found that the dose of the drug had an effect on Alzheimer’s risk; the higher the dose, the greater the risk.
While the increase in risk was modest, researchers say it still highlights a concern, as the use of benzodiazepines is on the rise. Benzodiazepines are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. Their use rose 67 percent over the last two decades, from 8.1 million prescriptions written per year in 1999 to 13.5 million in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of deaths attributed to benzodiazepine overdose has risen sevenfold over the past two decades.
This study did not prove that taking benzodiazepines directly causes Alzheimer’s. It could be that other factors are at play that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. Anxiety itself, for example, has been shown to be associated with Alzheimer’s, both in mid-life and as people age. Poor sleep, for which a person might be prescribed benzodiazepines, has also been linked to dementia. Depression, too, may speed up brain aging, according to other studies.
However, this isn’t the first time benzodiazepines have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. One study said there was even a possibility of a “direct association” between unwarranted long-term use of the drugs and developing Alzheimer’s. Experts say there are safer treatments for conditions like anxiety and insomnia, like selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors and behavioral interventions. But that doesn’t mean you should immediately stop taking your benzodiazepine prescription.
“Just as with opioids, some patients benefit from long-term use of benzodiazepines,” wrote several experts in The New England Journal of Medicine. “But even in low-risk patients, it is best to avoid daily dosing to mitigate the development of tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal.”
This study was published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.