Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that are commonly used to treat patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. These medications are described as being anxiolytic (antianxiety), anticonvulsant, sedative, hypnotic, and more. Despite apparently having multiple obvious applications for dementia patients, concerns persist about the effectiveness and even basic safety of benzodiazepine use among people with the condition.
Furthermore, there is evidence that benzodiazepine use among older adults may be linked with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. A large amount of research has been (and continues to be) conducted on the relationship between benzodiazepines and dementia, and the results regularly raise alarms.
Treating Dementia With Benzodiazepines
Dementia typically features a significant amount of anxiety and sleep disruption. Benzodiazepines are an attractive treatment option because they address these symptoms specifically. They also act as muscle-relaxants, which helps to quell the spasms and contractions associated with many types of dementia, particularly in the later stages. However, these medications are also known to have several adverse effects, including:
- Short-term cognitive impairments
- Vision problems
- High addiction potential
The risk of experiencing adverse effects is significantly elevated in the elderly, which includes the majority of dementia patients. An abundance of studies suggests that benzodiazepine use is directly related to negative outcomes for people with dementia. The most disturbing finding may be that, in at least one recent large-scale study, benzodiazepine use was found to be associated with an increased risk of death when given to patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Benzodiazepines and Alzheimer’s
For nearly a decade, researchers have delivered a steady stream of warnings about the link between Alzheimer’s disease and benzodiazepine use among older adults. The risk appears to be most severe when the use is long-term, with the potential for developing Alzheimer’s disease increasing by as much as 50% after three months of continuous treatment. Note that the existence of such an association does not mean that benzodiazepines cause Alzheimer’s disease, but they do appear to be involved in its development in some way that we have yet to uncover.
The Big Picture
While there is plenty of evidence that benzodiazepines are linked to poor outcomes for people with dementia, little investigation has been done on the nature of the association. We have yet to gain an understanding of how the drugs may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, or why they may be dangerous for dementia patients. It is possible that, as more research emerges, we will be able to identify and eliminate the risks without having to discontinue benzodiazepine use among the elderly and/or those with dementia entirely.
As it currently stands, there appear to be legitimate reasons to avoid benzodiazepines at an advanced age, especially when dementia is a factor. Bafflingly, multiple studies suggest that these medications are consistently overprescribed to at-risk groups. Until treatment practices catch up with research findings, it may benefit older people to be wary of benzodiazepines and to discuss any concerns with medical professionals should the topic arise. Using a self-assessment tool for dementia signs, like the BrainTest® app, can help people become aware of the level of risk they face.