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10 October 2012
Sleep meds and dementia may be linked

Although their study does not show a cause and effect relationship, European researchers say pharmaceuticals known as benzodiazepines appear to be linked to an increased risk of dementia. Used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders, benzodiazepine drugs include the meds Xanax and Valium.

The results, appearing in the British Medical Journal, demonstrate the risk of developing dementia increased by 50 percent for subjects who consumed benzodiazepines, compared with those who had never used benzodiazepines.

Benzodiazepine use is widespread around the globe, and benzodiazepine consumption is often chronic, with many people taking them over a long period (often several years) that significantly exceeds recommended good practice guidelines that suggest limiting the duration to two to four weeks. The effects of benzodiazepines on cognition have been the subject of several past studies with hotly debated findings.

In the new study, the researchers focused on a sample of 1,063 individuals. The annual occurrence of dementia observed in the benzodiazepine exposed group was 4.8 individuals out of 100, compared with 3.2 individuals out of 100 for the non-exposed group.

"The analysis of the cases of dementia in the first population group shows that individuals who began treatment after five years during the follow-up period had an increased risk of developing dementia," said researcher Tobias Kurth.

To check the robustness of the results, the researchers conducted two additional analyses comprising five "small" cohorts from the main group. These analyses confirmed the trend observed in the main study.

"According to our analysis, benzodiazepine exposure for the over-65s is linked to an increased risk of dementia. Although we cannot prove a cause and effect relationship, we observed that during the follow-up period benzodiazepine users had a risk of developing dementia that was 50 percent higher than those who had never taken benzodiazepine," explained co-researcher Bernard Bégaud.

The researchers conclude that while benzodiazepines are useful in the treatment of insomnia and anxiety in elderly patients, "limiting prescriptions to periods of a few weeks and taking care to ensure [they] are used correctly" is warranted. They add that additional studies should be conducted to ascertain whether the association is found in persons aged under 65.

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Source: INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale)

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