September 28, 2012 — A new study published in the British Medical Journal has found that elderly people who use anxiety and insomnia drugs have a 50% greater risk of developing dementia. These drugs, also known as benzodiazepines, include Ambien, Xanax, Restoril, Halcion, Klonopin, and more. Although official guidelines recommend that these drugs should only be used for a few weeks at a time, they are habit-forming, and elderly people often take them for several years.
Experts have a good understanding of the short-term effects of benzodiazepines, but they are still trying to understand the long-term effects. Although several studies have investigated this link, the results have been conflicting and inconclusive. Furthermore, good studies are difficult to conduct because the underlying problems that require treatment with benzodiazepines (insomnia, depression, and anxiety) could increase a person’s risk of dementia.
The researchers attempted a well-controlled study of dementia among new users of benzodiazepines. They screened study participants for 3-5 years before allowing them into the study; patients who started using benzodiazepines or showed symptoms of dementia were excluded. There were 1,063 individuals allowed into the study, and these people were followed for 15 years.
During the 15-year study, 253 of the 1,063 patients were diagnosed with dementia — 23% of non-benzodiazepine users were diagnosed with dementia, compared with 32% of benzodiazepine users. After the researchers controlled for confounding factors, they concluded that elderly people who start using benzodiazepines have a 50% increased risk of dementia.
The researchers also concluded that doctors and government health regulatory agencies should carefully consider the growing evidence linking benzodiazepines to an increased risk of dementia among the elderly.
It is unlikely that short-term use of these drugs increases the risk of dementia, but the study does raise concern about long-term use. The study was conducted in France, where 30% of people over 65 are prescribed benzodiazepines. These drugs are used less commonly in the United States, but many older Americans still use them chronically. The drugs are habit-forming, and they are often used for several years despite being indicated for only a few weeks at a time.