Sept. 22, 2014—Up to 43 percent of older adults turn to benzodiazepines, including Valium and Xanax, to treat anxiety, depression and insomnia. And while the drugs are already known to affect memory and cognition, a new study suggested that benzodiazepines could also raise the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
About the study
Researchers analyzed data on nearly 9,000 adults over age 66, including 1,796 with Alzheimer’s disease. Roughly half of those with Alzheimer’s disease had taken benzodiazepines in the 5 to 10 years preceding their diagnosis. Forty percent of those without Alzheimer’s disease had used them in the same period. Overall, those who’d taken the meds were up to 43 percent to 51 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who hadn’t.
The relationship appeared to be dose-dependent. While participants who took benzodiazepines for fewer than 90 days had the same Alzheimer’s risk as those who’d never used them at all, the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease increased with exposure. The risk was greater for those who took them for more than six months than it was for those who took them for between three and six months. Using long-acting medications, too, was found to be riskier than using short-acting ones.
Despite the evidence, researchers couldn’t rule out an alternative theory that benzodiazepine use might be an early marker of dementia rather than a cause. Benzodiazepines are often prescribed to treat anxiety or sleep disorders in older adults, symptoms that may be associated with heightened risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Still, the findings reinforce the suspicion that long-term benzodiazepine users may be at an increased likelihood for developing Alzheimer’s disease. While the drugs remain valuable short-term tools for treating anxiety and insomnia, the researchers recommend that health care providers carefully consider the benefits and risks associated with benzodiazepines before prescribing them to older patients.
Read the study, published in the BMJ, here.
|The take-home message|
|Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, a decline in mental function caused by damage to brain cells. While risk factors like age and genetics can’t be changed, you may be able to reduce your risk by keeping your heart healthy, exercising regularly and eating a Mediterranean-style diet.Growing evidence also suggests that benzodiazepines, a class of medication known to affect memory and cognition, could also play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Long-term use and long-acting drugs may be riskier than short-term use or short-acting drugs. If you or an adult you know is thinking about taking benzodiazepines to cope with a chronic problem, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons with a health care provider.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can vary greatly. However, it’s important to be familiar with common warning signs, such as:
If you begin to notice these symptoms in yourself or an older adult, consult a doctor. Early diagnosis offers the best opportunities for treatment, support and planning for the future.
Loss of memory and brain function are the most common signs of Alzheimer’s, but there are other symptoms. You can learn about diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s here.