Common Sleeping and Anxiety Pills Linked to Alzheimer’s

A disturbing new link has been found between the consumption of some commonly prescribed anti-anxiety and insomnia medication, and Alzheimer’s disease. However, its findings are far from definitive.

Benzodiazepines and Alzheimer’s

study conducted by researchers from the University of Bordeaux, France found that Canadian seniors who used benzodiazepine class drugs for three months or more were 51 percent more likely to have Alzheimer’s than those who did not. The widely used anxiety medications Xanax, Ativan and Valium are all benzodiazepine class drugs. Popular prescription sleep aids Restoril, Dalmane and Doral are also benzodiazepine derivatives.

As impaired cognition, decreased motor function and addiction are prevalent side effects of benzodiazepine usage, especially among the elderly, U.S. medical guidelines advise against their long-term use. However the French-Canadian study’s lead researcher Sophie Billioti de Gage argues the situation is more serious that previously believed. “Benzodiazepine use is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” wrote de Gage. “Unwarranted long-term use of these drugs should be considered as a public health concern.”

Unclear Connection

Although the researchers found a definite link between benzodiazepines and Alzheimer’s among the 9,000 elderly Quebec residents that were examined in the study, the nature of the connection is still unclear. The crux of the problem is that anxiety and insomnia are both early symptoms of Alzheimer’s and many benzodiazepines are prescribed to treat those same ailments. As such, additional research into the link will be necessary before new medical guidelines are implemented. However, since the drug’s side effects hit elderly people the hardest, it’s a good idea to regularly check in on older relatives who are taking benzodiazepine-based medications.  

Non-benzodiazepine Alternatives

Since the study’s findings were ambiguous, people who take benzodiazepines may be unsure how to react. According to the study, those who have never taken a benzodiazepine-derived medication for more than three months did not have a high risk of contracting Alzheimer’s. For those who have done so in the past or may do so in the near future, a conversation with your regular doctor might be in order. For example, if you receive a prescription for Xanax or Restorial, express your concerns and ask if non-benzodiazepine medications like Ambien or Vistaril would be appropriate. Together, you can likely find a course of treatment that will be effective without causing long-term harm. Obviously, consultation with a qualified medical professional should occur before making any alterations to a prescribed drug regimen.

The Importance of Having Options

Beyond exploring your medicinal options, you could also look into natural treatments for anxiety and insomnia. The Mayo Clinic lists regular exercise, eight hours of sleep a night and the elimination of alcohol and caffeine from your diet as simple measures that provide some relief from the symptoms of anxiety. Also, the use of cognitive behavior and talk therapy are recognized as having a positive effect on a variety of anxiety disorders. For those struggling with insomnia, the Mayo Clinic suggests meditation and acupuncture as alternative therapies worth investigating. Regardless of what findings future studies on benzodiazepines uncover, it’s important to remember that other options exist. And where there are options, there is hope.