'Clear Association' That Xanax, Valium, and Other Benzodiazepines Can Cause Dementia: Study
March 13, 2013
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By Dr. Mercola
Over 100 million people are prescribed drugs known as benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan, etc.) for anxiety and insomnia each year.1 Despite the fact that these drugs are only meant to be used for short periods, up to a few weeks, many use them for years, and new research suggests doing so may raise your risk of dementia.
Though a direct cause-and-effect link has yet to be established, the research revealed a strong association between the drugs and dementia risk.
Benzodiazepines Linked to 50 Percent Greater Dementia Risk
Among adults over 65, those who used benzodiazepines were 50 percent more likely to develop dementia over a 15-year period.2 This was true even when taking into account other factors that might increase dementia risk, such as age, gender and diabetes.
These findings echo earlier research, including:
- A 2002 study that also found former use of benzodiazepines was associated with a significantly increased risk of dementia.3
- A 2005 literature review, which found three of six papers reviewed found an increased risk of cognitive decline in benzodiazepine users.4 Researchers concluded:
“As a large proportion of subjects are exposed to benzodiazepines, a small increase in the risk of cognitive decline may have marked deleterious consequences for the health of the general population.”
The authors of the current study sounded a similar warning:
“Considering the extent to which benzodiazepines are prescribed and the number of potential adverse effects of this drug class in the general population, indiscriminate widespread use should be cautioned against.”
- A 2009 study that found long-term use of benzodiazepines was significantly associated with an increased risk of dementia, leading researchers to recommend “long-term use of BZDs should be avoided among the elderly, who may be at a higher risk for developing dementia, in addition to other health problems.”5
These Drugs May Increase Your Risk of Dying Prematurely Four Fold
Both anxiety and sleeping disorders are serious health issues that need to be addressed, but you need to think long and hard about whether benzodiazepines are the best solution. The risks are extremely steep; most would not knowingly put their life on the line, but you may be doing just that if you take benzodiazepines.
Research involving data from more than 10,500 people who received drugs for poor sleep (including benzodiazepines) showed that "as predicted, patients prescribed any hypnotic had substantially elevated hazards of dying compared to those prescribed no hypnotics"6 and the association held true even when patients with poor health were taken into account -- and even if the patients took fewer than 18 pills in a year.
The study suggested that those who take such medications are not only at higher risk for certain cancers, but are nearly four times more likely to die than people who don't take them. There are other serious risks too, like addiction.
Addiction is Common
These drugs exert a calming effect by boosting the action of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the same way as opioids (heroin) and some cannabinoids (cannabis) do. This in turn activates the gratification hormone, dopamine, in your brain. Since the identical brain "reward pathways" are used by both types of drugs, they can be equally addictive.7
Older adults have a much more difficult time eliminating benzodiazepines and similar drugs from their bloodstreams, especially while on multiple medications, which overburden the detoxification systems.
Over time, these drugs can accumulate in your body, which will increase your risk of an accidental overdose. Even at regular doses, these are mind-altering drugs, and as such have been linked to a seriously increased risk of getting into a car accident if you attempt to drive while taking them.8 Other common side effects of this class of drugs, regardless of age, include:
- Unsteady gait, and falling
- Hip fractures
- Drug-induced or drug-worsened impairment of thinking, memory loss
- Cancer and premature death
Natural Approaches for Relieving Anxiety
Feeling anxious is never pleasant, and you naturally want to escape it as quickly as possible. But remember, drugs should typically be your last choice. Mental illness is devastating. It takes a toll on the healthiest of families and can destroy lifelong friendships. Few things are harder in life than watching someone you love struggle with anxiety, panic attacks or depression, and to not have anything within your power that can change things for them. You wonder if you will ever have your loved one "back" again.
Oftentimes you cannot change your circumstances. You can, however, change your response to them. I encourage you to be balanced in your life. Don't ignore your body's warning signs that something needs to change. Sometimes people are so busy taking care of everybody else that they lose sight of themselves.
There are times when a prescription drug may help restore balance to your body. But it's unclear whether it is the drug providing benefits, or the unbelievable power of your mind that is convinced it is going to work. And oftentimes the risks you subject yourself to are simply too great … So I urge you to explore the safe and effective ways to address anxiety and other mental health conditions that do not involve unsafe drugs, including:
- Dramatically decrease your consumption of sugar (particularly fructose), grains, and processed foods. (In addition to being high in sugar and grains, processed foods also contain a variety of additives that can affect your brain function and mental state, especially MSG, and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame.)
There's a great book on this subject, The Sugar Blues, written by William Dufty more than 30 years ago, that delves into the topic of sugar and mental health in great detail.
- Increase consumption of fermented foods, such as fermented vegetables and kefir, to promote healthy gut flora. Mounting evidence tells us that having a healthy gut is profoundly important for both physical and mental health, and the latter can be severely impacted by an imbalance of intestinal bacteria. Your gut is your “second brain” and will help normalize the production of neurotransmitters that are responsible for optimal brain functioning.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through regular sun exposure. Vitamin D is very important for your mood and mental health. The best way to get vitamin D is through exposure to sunshine or a safe tanning bed if you don't have regular access to the sun.
- Get plenty of animal-based omega-3 fats. Many people don't realize that excluding water their brain is 60 percent fat, but not just any fat. It is DHA, an animal-based omega-3 fat that, along with EPA, is crucial for good brain function and mental health, including reducing anxiety. Unfortunately, most people don't get enough from diet alone. Make sure you take a high-quality omega-3 fat, such as krill oil.
- Get adequate daily exercise, which is one of the most effective strategies for supporting positive mental health. Studies on exercise as a treatment for depression have shown there is a strong correlation between improved mood and aerobic capacity. So there's a growing acceptance that the mind-body connection is very real, and that maintaining good physical health can significantly lower your risk of developing mental and emotional challenges in the first place.
- Get adequate amounts of sleep. You can have the best diet and exercise program possible but if you aren't sleeping well you can easily become depressed and anxious. Sleep and depression are so intimately linked that a sleep disorder is actually part of the definition of the symptom complex that gives the label depression.
If you struggle with insomnia, I suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night's Sleep for 33 simple tips on improving your sleep. Whether you are not able to fall asleep, wake up too often, or don't feel well rested when you wake up in the morning, these guidelines will provide you with various useful techniques to improve sleep problems.
- I strongly believe that energy psychology is one of the most powerful tools for resolving emotional issues – specifically a technique called the Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT.
If You’re Taking Benzodiazepines for Sleep …
As with anxiety, these drugs do nothing to help the underlying reasons why you're having trouble sleeping. This is likely why studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can treat insomnia better than drugs.
Instead of resorting to drugs, I suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night's Sleep for 33 simple tips on improving your sleep. There are many factors that can play a role, but one that many fail to consider is the use of lights, such as your TV, iPad, and computer, before going to bed. These emit the type of blue light that will suppress your pineal gland’s ability to convert serotonin to melatonin and hamper your ability to fall asleep. Ideally, you'll want to turn them off at least an hour prior to bedtime. Next, making sure your bedroom is ideally suited for sleep can also go a long way to ensure restful and uninterrupted sleep:
- Cover your windows with blackout shades or drapes to ensure complete darkness. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal gland's production of sleep hormones. (Even the faint glow from your clock radio could be interfering with your sleep.)
Also close your bedroom door, get rid of night-lights, and refrain from turning on any light during the night, even when getting up to go to the bathroom. If you have to use a light, install so-called "low blue" light bulbs in your bedroom and bathroom. These emit an amber or red light that will not suppress your natural melatonin production.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom at or below 70 degrees F (21 degrees Celsius). Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, between 60 to 68 degrees F (15.5 to 20 C). Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep.
When you sleep, your body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level, generally about four hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may therefore be most conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body's natural temperature drop.
- Check your bedroom for electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). These can disrupt your pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well.
To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to kill all power in your house. Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your head. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least 3 feet.
- If you're feeling anxious or restless, try using the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which can help you address any emotional issues that might keep you tossing and turning at night.
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