Sleeping pills can raise Alzheimer’s risk among elderly people


Annually, the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia conditions in France has been up to more than 800,000. This number is even predicted to double in no more than 40 years, according to the reports of France Alzheimer’s – the leading charity helping sufferers and their families.

Although there have been no cure for Alzheimer’s so far, the goal of treatment is to keep the progression of the disease down, modify the home atmosphere and manage behavior problems as well as confusion through medication, lifestyle changes plus antioxidant supplements.

As the medical community continues to put their efforts further into the field of Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment, scientists and doctors have been discovering new potential causes.

Thus, a study conducted by Canadian and French researchers last year showed that long-term use of pills for sleep problems and anxiety could increase an elderly person’s chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease by up to 51%.


Process of study

The researchers are a co-operation of scientists from the University of Bordeaux in France and the University of Montreal, tracked 8,890 people over the age of 65 living in Quebe.

Researchers observed which subjects used of benzodiazepines — medications commonly prescribed to treat anxiety or sleeplessness — and which were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It aimed at investigating the relationship between Alzheimer’s risk and administration of benzodiazepines beginning at least five years before diagnoses.

It involved 1,796 participants from the Quebec health insurance program database who had their first diagnosis of the cognitive condition and had been overseen by a doctor for at least six years prior. All these people were over the age of 66 and matched with 7,184 participants of varying ages, gentles and duration of health care prior to diagnosis.

The findings

The French and Canadian researchers found that when compared with the non-Alzheimer‘s control group which use of benzodiazepines for three months or more in the past was associated with a 43 to 51 per cent higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s.  Longer use of benzodiazepines led to higher risk.

Longer use of benzodiazepines led to higher risk
Longer use of benzodiazepines led to higher risk

Those who had been exposed to higher doses of the anxiety and insomnia medication have exponentially higher likelihood of developing this form of dementia.

However, this study does not conclusively state that the drugs directly caused the condition – only that there is a link between the two. As lead researcher Dr. Sophie Billioti de Gage noted in the study, it may be that early stages of Alzheimer’s cause insomnia and anxiety, prompting the use of these medications.

Benzodiazepines are well-known as “valuable tools” for managing anxiety and insomnia but they should be used in “short duration and not exceed three months.” With the elderly, it could make them unsteady. They could fall and fracture their hips and they could become addicted

Despite those concerns it is reported that “20 to 25 per cent of people over 65 still use benzodiazepines regularly”  – a “astoundingly high” rate.

The study also give another suppose that symptoms such as anxiety, depression and sleeplessness are the hints showing the early stages of dementia, but researchers concluded that their results were not altered greatly when adjusted for these symptoms.

What does it mean for seniors with Alzheimer’s?

These findings may change the way doctors approach treating older adults when they have to deal with anxiety and insomnia. As Billioti de Gage noted in the study, health care professionals should consider carefully before prescribing this kind of drug to older adults.

Doctors need to consider carefully before prescribing benzodiazepines to older adults
Doctors need to consider carefully before prescribing benzodiazepines to older adults

For people compulsorily need benzodiazepines, physicians are importantly encouraged to carefully balance the benefits and risks when renewing the prescription, Billioti de Gage,

The American Geriatrics Society has already been alarmed health care providers of putting seniors on benzodiazepines, as they can increase the risk of confusion, accidents. In fact, as the society reports, falls, hip fractures and car accidents leading to hospitalization and even death can more than double among seniors on benzodiazepines. People with Alzheimer’s may be better of undergoing alternative, natural treatments for anxiety and insomnia, such as therapy, under the recommendation of a health care provider.

Nathan Herrmann, head of geriactric psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto claimed that benzodiazepines also affect memory. They are bad for the brain. So even before this study, people shouldn’t have elderly people on them for a long time

Herrmann makes sure that there are non-medicated treatments for insomnia and anxiety, which he uses. He also suggests that cognitive behavourial therapy (CBT), a kind of psychotherapy, has been useful in the treatment of insomnia and mild anxiety.

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