Common Anti-Anxiety Drugs May Increase Dementia Risk in Over 65s

New research suggests that a class of drug called benzodiazepines, commonly used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders, may increase the risk of dementia in people over the age of 65. The study of 1063 people is published online on 27 September in the British Medical Journal.

The study was carried out by a research team in France who followed up 1063 men and women over the age of 65 for 20 years. At the start of the study, none of the participants had dementia or were taking benzodiazepines. During the follow-up period, 95 participants started using benzodiazepines and 253 of the volunteers developed dementia.

Benzodiazepines are a class of drug recommended for short-term use to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. While they should only be used for a short time period, people can remain on the drugs for longer than a few weeks. Benzodiazepines can also be prescribed to people with dementia, as anxiety, depression and sleep problems can be common symptoms.

The research showed that 32% of benzodiazepine users developed dementia during the follow-up period, compared to only 23% of the non-user group. Even after the data was adjusted for potential confounding factors such as age, sex and education, the risk of dementia in those who started benzodiazepines during the study was significantly higher than those who did not.

Dr Eric Karran, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Long-term population studies are invaluable for helping us to understand how our environment and life-events may influence our risk of dementia, but it can be incredibly difficult to tease out the real cause behind these associations. It could be the underlying conditions that drive someone to need benzodiazepines, rather than the drugs themselves, that are the important risk factors in this case.

“While more research is needed to understand why benzodiazepines may be associated with an increased risk of dementia, the study does highlight the importance of careful drug prescription. Research is vital for helping to assess both the benefits and the potential drawbacks of drugs in different groups of people, which can have real implications for clinical practice. With 820,000 people living with dementia in the UK and those numbers increasing, it is important that we continue to invest in research to understand the risk factors of dementia.”

This material has been published with the kind permission of Alzheimer Research UK.

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