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Do Insomnia Medications Raise your Risk for Alzheimer’s?

Benzodiazepines are medications that are prescribed frequently for symptoms of insomnia and anxiety. They include such familiar names as Ativan, Valium and Xanax.  Though the medications are effective, their use has been called into question in the past for a number of reasons. The American Geriatrics Society has specifically warned against their use in older adults, citing concerns about side effects that can lead to falls and hip fractures as well as car crashes, but despite these concerns almost half of all older adults in the United States have used these drugs. But the results of a new study linking their use to a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s may cause physicians to reconsider when prescribing.

The study does not draw a straight line or establish cause and effect between the popular drugs and degenerative brain diseases. However, the fact that it shows Alzheimer’s is present in 51% more adults who have a history of having taken the drugs is enough to cause health professionals to pause and consider, particularly in light of the fact that the association became apparent following just three months of use, and increased as the drug use rose. Patients who were taking long-acting doses of the medications showed the highest association.

The research was conducted by scientists in France and Canada. The group analyzed medical records of nearly 1,800 adults who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and compared them with the histories of nearly 7,000 other adults. All were from Quebec. In reviewing the data the scientists found the link with benzodiazepines going back a minimum of six years prior to the diagnosis of the condition.

The study was published in a recent edition of the medical journal BMJ, and according to comments from Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco and Malaz Boustani of the Indiana University Center for Aging Research, “It is not surprising that benzodiazepines are associated with adverse cognitive effects.” Among the reasons that the experts are not surprised is the fact that it is well known that anxiety and sleep problems often precede a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, and that would obviously lead to prescribing the medications. In response, the study’s researchers indicated that their findings were adjusted to account for early diagnoses, but say that the link still exists without it.

One thing that the study did not address was previous research that has tied earlier lack of sleep to a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative brain diseases. It would make sense that people who have chronically struggled with sleeplessness might have sought treatment specifically for insomnia and been treated for the disease.  The researchers have indicated that the question raised is whether the effects of the medication that they have shown are reversible or whether they are permanent.

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