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The question

Benzodiazepines, also known as benzos, are drugs sometimes prescribed to ease the agitation, anxiety and insomnia often experienced by people with Alzheimer’s disease. Might these powerful medications have an effect beyond their sleep-inducing or calming properties?

This study

Researchers analyzed data on 31,140 adults with Alzheimer’s, most in their early 80s and predominantly women. The group included 10,380 people who started taking benzodiazepines (6,438), benzodiazepine-related “Z-drugs” (3,826) or both (116) after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. None of them had taken these drugs for at least a year before their diagnosis. Prescribed benzos included Valium, Librium, Ativan, Xanax, Restoril, Serax and one drug not approved for use in the United States. Prescribed Z-drugs were Ambien and one non-U.S. drug. Within six months of starting to take the medication, 1,225 people had died. Those taking benzos were 41 percent more likely to have died than were people who did not take these drugs, with the strongest mortality risk occurring within four months of starting the medication. No increased risk was linked to Z-drugs.

Who may be affected?

People with Alzheimer’s, which usually affects those 60 and older. The researchers noted that benzodiazepines and similar drugs have a stronger effect on the central nervous system of older people than of younger ones, and they have been shown to raise older people’s risk for hip fractures, pneumonia and stroke. Because of this, they wrote, “the observed association with an increased risk of death might result from these outcomes.” Today, about 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s — a number that may triple in the next three decades.

Caveats

The study revealed an association between these drugs and a greater chance of early death for those with Alzheimer’s, but it did not prove that the drugs caused the higher mortality rate. The study also did not assess the long-term effect of taking the drugs. The participants’ cause of death was not noted in the study.

Find this study

Online Nov. 15 in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (onlinelibrary.wiley.com; search under “Publication titles” for journal name; then click “Early View”).

Learn more

Information on Alzheimer’s disease can be found at alz.org. For more on benzodiazepines, go to cesar.umd.edu (search for “benzodiazepine”).

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.