A popular anti-anxiety drug has been linked with an increased risk of dementia in pensioners, according to new research.
Patients over the age of 65 who start taking benzodiazepines, commonly known as benzos, have a 50% increased chance of developing dementia within 15 years compared with people who had never used the drug, according to the study.
Researchers from the University of Bordeaux, France, warned that “indiscriminate widespread use” of the drugs, which are also used to treat insomnia, should be cautioned against.
The drug is widely used in many countries. In France 30% of people over the age of 65 take benzodiazepines. Many administer the drug for long periods despite guidelines suggesting it should only be used for a few weeks.
The research, which is published on bmj.com, examined 1,063 people with an average age of 78 over two decades. They had never taken the drug before and were all free from dementia.
They found that 95 patients started taking benzodiazepine during the study.
After a 15-year follow-up, 253 people developed dementia. Of these, 30 had begun to take the drugs between three and five years into the study.
The chance of dementia occurring in those who had taken the drugs was 4.8 per 100 “person years” - a statistical measure representing one person at risk of development of a disease during a period of one year.
Of those who had not taken the drugs the likelihood was measured to be 3.2 per 100 person years, the researchers found.
“Benzodiazepines remain useful for the treatment of acute anxiety states and transient insomnia. However, increasing evidence shows that their use may induce adverse outcomes, mainly in elderly people, such as serious falls and fall related fractures.
“Therefore, physicians should carefully assess the expected benefits of the use of benzodiazepines in the light of these adverse effects and, whenever possible, limit prescription to a few weeks as recommended by the good practice guidelines.
“In particular, uncontrolled chronic use of benzodiazepines in elderly people should be cautioned against,” the authors wrote.
Dr Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: “It could be the underlying conditions that drive someone to need benzodiazepines, rather than the drugs themselves, that are the important risk factors in this case.
“While more research is needed to understand why benzodiazepines may be associated with an increased risk of dementia, the study does highlight the importance of careful drug prescription.”