Benzodiazepines and Dementia: The New Findings

Benzodiazepines not linked to dementia risk in older adults

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

(RxWiki News) Treating anxiety and insomnia can be complex, especially when considering the potential side effects of medication. A new study may shed some light on that issue.

In spite of recent concerns, researchers from the University of Washington (UW) report that benzodiazepines — a class of medication widely prescribed for anxiety and insomnia — likely doesn't boost the risk of dementia in older adults.

Benzodiazepines include brand names like Valium, Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan. Commonly called benzos or tranquilizers, these drugs affect the brain and can cause sedation.

Lead study author Shelly Gray, PharmD, used pharmacy data to look at the benzodiazepine prescriptions of 3,434 patients over a 10-year period. Dr. Gray is a professor of pharmacy at UW.

Dr. Gray and team followed these patients for an average of seven years. All were age 65 or older and had no signs of dementia at the study's start.

All had also taken benzodiazepines for periods ranging from one to more than four months. Patients might have taken these medications continuously or intermittently.

Dr. Gray and team conducted cognitive tests at the study's start and again every two years. Cognitive testing is used to determine if a patient has symptoms of dementia. Questions cover topics such as long- and short-term memory, language ability, counting, abstract thinking and judgment.

Twenty-three percent of the patients developed dementia during the follow-up period. Most of these patients were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

The highest level of benzodiazepine use (ranging from four months to about one year) was not linked to an increased risk of dementia. However, lesser use was linked to a slight increased risk.

Dr. Gray and team noted that, because these patients were primarily white and well-educated, their findings may not apply to all groups. These researchers also recommend that benzodiazepine use be avoided in older adults due to the risk for potentially serious side effects.

The study was published Feb. 2 in The BMJ.

The National Institute on Aging and the Branta Foundation funded this research.

Several study authors disclosed potential conflicts of interest, including receiving grants from Merck, Pfizer, Amgen and Bayer. These companies either make or distribute benzodiazepine medications.

Review Date: 
February 3, 2016
Last Updated:
February 5, 2016