Taking Benzodiazepines for Anxiety and Insomnia Increase Risk of Alzheimer’s Deaths, Study Finds

Janet Stewart, MSc avatar

by Janet Stewart, MSc |

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Benzodiazepines and Alzheimer's

Alzheimer’s patients who take benzodiazepines for anxiety, agitation, and insomnia are at a 40 percent greater risk of death than those who don’t take the therapies, a study reports.

The research, “Risk of death associated with new benzodiazepine use among persons with Alzheimer disease: A matched cohort study,” was published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Several treatment guidelines contend that the first option for treating anxiety, agitation and insomnia in persons with dementia should not be drugs.

But doctors often prescribe benzodiazepines and similar drugs for these conditions. The makers recommended them only for short-term use, however.

Researchers decided to investigate the risk of death associated with these medicines. They looked at the records of patients in Finland’s MEDALZ (Medication Use and Alzheimer’s Disease) study, which covered everyone in the country diagnosed with Alzheimer’s between 2005 and 2011.

The team looked at reports on 10,380 patients who had taken benzodiazepine for the first time. They matched the treated patients with twice as many patients who had not taken the drugs — 20,760 in all. The matching involved patients’ age, sex, and time since an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Researchers took into account only the deaths that occurred in the first 180 days of benzodiazepine treatment.

The key finding was that 40 percent more of the treated patients died than the non-treated ones.

Researchers said the risk of death rose immediately after a patient began taking benzodiazepinet.

Many of the deaths appeared to be from adverse events stemming from the drug, including pneumonia, stroke, and injuries from falls, such as hip fractures, according to a news release.

“Benzodiazepine and related drug use was associated with an increased risk of death,” the team wrote. “And the association was significant from the initiation of use.” Although “benzodiazepine use was associated with an increased risk of death,” benzodiazepine-related drug use was not, they wrote.

“Our results support treatment guidelines stating that nonpharmacological approaches should be the first-line option for symptomatic treatment” of Alzheimer’s, the authors concluded.