Can Benzos Lead to Alzheimer's?

By Paul Gaita 09/26/14

A new study published in the British Medical Journal has drawn the link, though not without controversy.

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A new study has drawn a connection between benzodiazepines and Alzheimer’s disease by showing an increase in the condition among elderly patients who took long-term or high doses of Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, and other insomnia and anxiety drugs.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, was conducted by French and Canadian researchers who compared information from two groups: more than 1,000 elderly subjects diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and a second group of more than 7,000 individuals of the same age group who did not have the disease.

Their research found that those who either took low doses of benzodiazepine medication on a regular basis or less frequent higher doses were less at risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s within five years of their first use of such medication.

However, those who took long-acting or high doses of benzodiazepines, or who took any such drugs on a regular basis for several months were in greater risk. Those who took the cumulative equivalent of a daily dose for three to six months were roughly 32% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who took no such drugs. But others who took a full daily dose for more than six months were 84% more likely to be diagnosed with the disease.

The study researchers focused on individuals who used the anti-anxiety medications Xanax, Ativan, Seresta, and Valium, as well as the anti-insomnia drugs Klonopin, Dalmane, Versed, Mogadon, Restoril, and Halcion. Those who used more widely prescribed meds as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata were not included in the final results.

Though the study appeared to corroborate other research which has found that frequent benzodiazepine use has a negative effect on memory and mental performance, responses to the study from the medical community has been mixed, due largely to the fact that many of the drugs in question are prescribed for conditions that are also indicative of the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

The president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology told BBC News that while the study’s findings may indicate that the drugs are connected to the disease, it was more likely that the “drugs are being given to people who are already ill.” The study’s researchers defended their conclusion by stating, “The stronger association observed for long term exposures reinforces the suspicion of a possible direct association, even if benzodiazepine use might also be an early marker of a condition associated with an increased risk of dementia.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.