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Does your sleep medication cause Alzheimer’s disease?

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New science linking sleep drugs to Alzheimer’s disease has led a rush of people to the insomnia clinic. They all ask the same desperate questions, “Can you help be get off of benzodiazepines?” A benzodiazepine is a medication used to treat insomnia or anxiety that works on a chemical called GABA in the brain. The most common of these drugs used for sleep include:

  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Restoril (temazepam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)

A team of researchers from France and Canada linked benzodiazepine use to an increased risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, the greater a person’s cumulative dose of benzodiazepines, the higher his or her risk of Alzheimer’s. This means that the longer a person takes one of these medications and the higher the dose of that medication, the more their risk for Alzheimer’s disease goes up. This isn’t surprising as many studies over the years have connected these medications to confusion, delirium, memory problems, increased motor vehicle accidents, and increased falls in older adults. In fact, because of these concerns, benzodiazepines are listed as potentially inappropriate for older adults under the Beers criteria. The Beers Criteria is a list of medications considered to be potentially inappropriate for older adults due to high risk for negative effects or evidence that they’re simply not that effective.

I really like this short conversation on CBS morning news about this new research and the pros and cons of benzodiazepine medications.

Beverly Merz, Executive Editor for Harvard Women’s Health Watch also published a nice article on The Harvard Health Blog. Her article Benzodiazepine Use May Raise Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease talks about this research study and concerns connected to use of these kinds of medications. It generated a number of comments showing the fears and struggles some people have experienced around Alzheimer’s disease and family members who had used benzodiazepines for many years. Here are a couple of the comments.

POSTED SEPTEMBER 12TH, 2014 AT 11:34 AM
H. Franzblau

My husband just died from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 62. He took valium every day since his early 20’s. He also took xanex regularly probably beginning in his 40’s. I always wondered if this had anything to do with having this horrible disease, particularly at such a young age.

Sue

I took care of my parents in their home until their deaths in 2012. Both parents took most all of the above-listed drugs listed in the study for years, and I am talking from the 1970s to 2012. As they aged, they were prescribed more and more of increasing doses of said drugs. Both were diagnosed with Alzheimer dementia. Both of my parents died from the effects of Alzheimer dementia. It was a long, agonizing time of years we took care of them. Their care went from daily small things to continual round-the-clock care and finally hospice. I have extensively studied my family history for over 30 years and cannot find one biological relative who had any evidence of Alzheimer dementia on either my father or mother’s side of the family. At one point, my parents’ addiction to this drug was so bad, they required hospitalization in a psychiatric ward, trying withdrawal schedules, etc., and the family members both fighting this all the way, seeing the handwriting on the wall of what was to come, and yet this drug was prescribed like water. I wish there were somewhere I could go to report this. In the end, both of their deaths were directly linked to Alzheimer dementia with the textbook symptoms.

Just because you’re using one of these medications doesn’t mean that you will develop Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia. However, I strongly encourage you to have an honest conversation with your doctor about the risks and benefits of using these medications. The other thing I would say to close out this blog post is that there is also some nice research that shows that it’s possible to stop using benzodiazepine medications while maintaining a satisfying sleep pattern. This can be done without withdrawal symptoms or a return of insomnia. Helping people get off of these types of medications and maintain healthy sleep is what we do frequently at the insomnia clinic.

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