A study published recently in the British Medical Journal has linked the use of common anti-anxiety drugs to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
According to USA Today, Alzheimer's was found to be 51 percent more common in older adults who have taken benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax in the past.
Benzodiazepines have already been linked to increased car crashes, falls and hip fractures, prompting The American Geriatrics Society to discourage their use in the elderly. Yet, despite the risk, doctors are still prescribing the drugs to almost half of older adults according to the study.
Researchers in Canada and France reviewed the records of 1,796 Quebec residents diagnosed with Alzheimer's comparing them with another 7,184 residents over the age of 66 who did not have dementia. A link with anti-anxiety drugs was found in records dating back as far as six years before the Alzheimer's patients were diagnosed.
The risk began as early as three months after starting to take benzodiazepines and increased with continued use. The highest risk was shown in patients who took long-action versions of the drugs.
WebMD points out that since the study was based on prescription records, there is no definitive proof that the drugs actually cause the disease. Geriatrics specialist Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein said, "We know the drugs were prescribed, but we don't know how often people took them, or if they took them at all."
In any case, Wolf-Klein believes that benzodiazepines have enough known risks to cause concern in prescribing them for older adults. "There is absolutely no doubt that these drugs cause dangerous side effects," she said. "It's important for people to understand that they can be addictive, and increase the risk for confusion and falls."
The lead researcher in the study, Sophie Billioti de Gage, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bordeaux, noted that early-stage Alzheimer's patients exhibit symptoms such as sleep problems and anxiety. That could show that the patients may be using the drugs as the result of Alzheimer's and that they are not the cause.
However, she said that the study was designed to counter that possibility; only considering patients who began taking the anti-anxiety drugs at least five years before they were diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
Because of the risk involved for older adults in taking the drugs, Wolf-Klein suggests looking for non-drug solutions to sleep and anxiety problems because medications don't address the underlying problems.
According to Billiot de Gage, short-term use of the medications is not harmful in the elderly, and there was no increased Alzheimer's risk noted in those prescribed the drugs according to international guidelines – no longer than one month for insomnia or three months for anxiety symptoms.
For more information on preventing Alzheimer's, see this related Inquisitr article.
[Photos courtesy of flplahore.blogspot.com and Health Drugs for U]