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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Insomnia, Anxiety Drugs May Raise Dementia Risk

A Mixed Bag

Two previous studies found that benzodiazepine users had no increased risk, or perhaps even a decreased risk of dementia, compared to seniors who didn’t take the drugs.

Three other studies, on the other hand, have noted increased risks for memory trouble in benzodiazepine users.

Those studies followed people for shorter periods of time, so they couldn’t rule out the possibility that people had started taking the drugs to relieve the first symptoms of dementia, which often include increased anxiety, agitation, and trouble sleeping.

The new study got around that problem by following study participants for five years before they were even considered for the analysis. This allowed researchers to exclude people who were showing signs of memory problems before they started the drugs.

Researchers say the study leaves many questions unanswered. For example, they don’t know how benzodiazepines may lead to dementia. And they don’t know whether their results might apply to younger people.

“We don’t have a single study on this topic conducted in younger patients. We don’t know if the risk of dementia is increased in people who use the drugs when they are younger -- at age 40 or 45,” says researcher Bernard Begaud, MD, PhD, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Bordeaux in France.

But based on all the available evidence, Begaud says seniors may want to seek out alternatives to benzodiazepines, especially if they’ve been on the drugs for a long time.

“Many elderly patients take them for sleep disorders, but they might have trouble sleeping because they are depressed and they need treatment for depression, or they are drinking coffee too late in the day or they aren’t exercising,” he says.

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