Risk of Dementia from Benzodiazepine Use

Benzodiazepines, such as Valium, Ativan, Librium and Xanax (and their generic versions), have been around for a long time. They are the most popular drugs the world, selling an estimated $880 billion in 2011 alone. They are commonly prescribed for generalized anxiety and to help with insomnia. They also come with many dangerous known side effects, including the potential to cause drug-induced addiction.

Last fall, a study published in the British Medical Journal, concluded that new use of benzodiazepines was associated with an increased risk of dementia. The study’s authors cautioned against “indiscriminate widespread use.” It found that benzodiazepine use by elderly patients increased the risk of developing dementia by an incredible 50%. As dementia becomes more and more prevalent in our elderly population, one has to wonder whether the millions of prescriptions for these addictive drugs is contributing in some way to the rise in dementia, where there are few treatments that can make a significant difference.

Over a decade ago, researchers followed approximately 3700 elderly subjects for approximately 8 years to determine the relationship between benzodiazepines and the elderly. They concluded in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology that “use of benzodiazepines could be a risk factor for dementia, but more detailed investigation are needed.” Not surprisingly, as far as I am aware, none of the manufacturers of these drugs spent the time or money to study this potential long term association or found it appropriate to warn physicians about this long term risk.

Now, following the publication of this latest study, it is critical that the manufacturers of these drugs directly warn physicians about the risk of dementia. As the BMJ concluded – “Considering the extent to which benzodiazepines are now prescribed, physicians and regulatory agencies should consider the increasing evidence of the potential adverse effects of this drug class for the general population.”