A recent study has found a significant connection between use of benzodiazepines (a compound framing some anxiety medications) and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The category of benzodiazepines include a number of medications such as Valium and Xanax. The study compared thousands of subjects, both those with and without the Alzheimer’s. Research found those who had taken benzodiazepines for at least three months saw an increased likelihood of being of at least 50 percent of being diagnosed with the disease. Additionally, the study found that those who took such medications for six months had a doubled risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
There are a number of potential factors that may explain the link between the medication and Alzheimer’s. For instance, a patient that uses benzodiazepines for great lengths may have neurological brain changes which hinder his or her ability to cope with the symptoms of the disease. Those who have passed away due to Alzheimer’s disease have also been shown to often have fewer benzodiazepine receptors. Many mental health professionals believe clients should not use benzodiazepines excessively, meaning use should, preferably, not last longer than three months. It may be especially important to ensure that a person does not develop a dependence on these drugs and that they are not used to treat long term symptoms. Due to the powerful nature of the drug, it is still necessary to consult a doctor before stopping use.
The link between Alzheimer’s and benzo use does appear to be stronger for drugs with extended release, such as Valium, as opposed to Xanax and Ativan, which leave the body more rapidly. It should also be noted that those who experience the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease may experience anxiety and insomnia. Some may believe benzodiazepine use may instead be a necessary step to treat early stages of the illness, rather than thinking the drugs are causing Alzheimer’s. However, the Canadian study did take precautions to keep the control group even. This included only allowing for prescriptions that were started at least five years prior to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Benzodiazepines work as a central nervous system depressant that slows brain activity. These drugs do not treat anxiety itself but rather the symptoms of the anxiety. Areas of the brain that relate to memory may be affected by benzos and these are the areas of the brain where Alzheimer’s disease develops. For these reasons and more, such medications should only be a temporary solution for patients.
Another issue is that benzodiazepines have the potential for greater sensitivity among older adults. Such medications are prescribed for anxiety, sleep and seizure disorders because they tend to have a calming effect on patients. However, slower metabolism in this age group is a widespread concern, as these drugs are stored in body fat and may have belated symptoms. It has been shown that benzodiazepines tamper with balance; thus increasing the likelihood of falls, fractures and car accidents.
Cognitive difficulties may also be more prevalent. Benzodiazepines may also increase the odds of premature death. The risk of certain cancers may also increase with such medications. Such drugs also increase the production of dopamine in the brain. This is part of what causes benzodiazepines to be addictive when they are used for longer periods of time. Such substances may accumulate in the body over time and therefore increase the likelihood of an overdose.
When it is time for the patient to begin weaning off benzodiazepines, the care and discretion of a doctor will be necessary. Even if this process is carried out medically, as it should be, there may still the potential for benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. This may include a number of undesirable side effects including depression, anxiety, memory difficulties and loss of motor skills.
Due to the risks involved, there are warnings in place about the use of benzodiazepines in older patients because of such withdrawal symptoms. However, this study may lead to further warnings concerning benzodiazepine use and its short and long-term effects and increase the need to find other solutions for prescribed medicine in such cases.
Besides the use of common therapeutic approaches such as behavioral therapy and psychotherapy, there are also more natural means of relieving anxiety symptoms. This includes exercise, which is a natural means of increasing chemicals such a serotonin and dopamine. There is also the opportunity of managing a healthier diet to improve mood. This may include the benefits of omega-3 fats, as found in seafood and nuts. Such fats may help to improve mood and decrease anxiety levels. Alternative therapies such as the cognitive behavioral therapy may also prove helpful. If a medical professional does recommend benzodiazepines, make sure that they are taken as directed and not for an extended period of time.
If you or your loved one is struggling with an anxiety disorder it is best to seek help as soon as possible. To find out more about treatment for anxiety disorders you can contact Sovereign Health at 866-754-3385 to speak to a member of our team.
Written by Ryan McMaster, Sovereign Health Group writer