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Medications commonly given to elders could substantially spike Alzheimer's risk

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Alzheimer's linked to popular prescription drugs

Are your medications putting you at risk for Alzheimer's disease? Researchers recently found a link between common medications known as benzodiazepines that are prescribed for almost half of elders in the US and the development of Alzheimer's disease.


If you, a spouse, parent or family member are taking anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax or Valium you might be interested in what the medications can do your brain. Long-term use of popular drugs known as benzodiazepines have now been linked to up to a fifty-one percent higher chance of developing Alzheimer's disease compared to people who never took the medications.

Long-term use of sleeping and nerve pills affect memory

In the new study that showed a link, but not definite evidence, insomnia and nerve pills were associated with higher chance of memory loss from Alzheimer's disease when they're used long term - for six months or more.

The finding has implications especially for older people who are already at risk for cognitive decline.

The finding that looked at 9,000 older individuals found the highest risk of Alzheimer's disease was among people who had been taking benzodiazepines for six months or longer.

Drug benefits should be carefully weighed

Investigators for the study that was published September 9, 2014 in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) say clinicians should prescribe the medications short-term, emphasizing that that Alzheimer's disease is a public health concern and that the drugs are widely prescribed especially for elders.

The recommendation for prescribing medications for sleep and anxiety is no longer than three months.

The study authors point out even though past studies have associated benzodiazepines with memory loss.

"For people needing or using benzodiazepines, it seems crucial to encourage physicians to carefully balance the benefits and risks when initiating or renewing a treatment," said Dr. Billioti de Gage who was the study's lead author.

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Billoti DeGage also says there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease and no prevention for the devastating disease that is expected to affect 115 million people by 2050. Currently, there are an estimated 36 million people living with Alzheimer's disease.

See also: Could lifestyle changes prevent Alzheimer's disease?

Half of older adults use sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medications, despite 2012 updated guidelines from the American Geriatrics Society that benzodiazepines can cause adverse events.

In an accompanying editorial Kristine Yaffe, MD, endowed chair and professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and Malaz Boustani, MD, professor at the Indiana University Center for Aging Research in Indianapolis highlights the importance of monitoring older adults for cognitive dysfunction who are given the drugs, noting that it isn't being done.

"To fill this gap, we support the development of a structured reproducible approach to the identification and accurate monitoring...of all drug treatments used by older adults with multiple chronic conditions," write Dr. Yaffe and Dr. Boustani.

The next step the researchers say is to explore why anti-anxiety and insomnia drugs known as benzodiazepines could lead to Alzheimer's disease. One theory is that the drugs cause a decrease in binding receptors in the brain that are responsible for memory.

Do the medications cause Alzheimer's disease?

The answer is we don't know as the study merely showed an association. The study authors admit there could be other variables responsible for the finding.

What we do know is that insomnia drugs, medications used to calm anxiety and other prescriptions can affect the central nervous system in ways that can be detrimental. In older people sedation can lead to falls, excess sleepiness, decreased appetite and inability to safely perform activities of daily living, including driving. Ask your doctor to review your medications regularly to help avoid overuse of potentially dangerous drugs. You can also schedule an annual review with your insurance company's pharmacist if such a program is available. Many insurers do have the option.

BMJ 2014;349:g5205

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