Benzodiazepine Prescription Drug Risk in Older Adults

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Benzodiazepine Prescription Drug There’s an epidemic in the U.S.

I’m not talking about the measles, or any other viral disease—I’m referring to prescription drugs. Benzodiazepines, for example, are supposed to treat anxiety, insomnia, agitation, seizures, and alcohol withdrawal.

You’ve likely heard of the most common varieties: Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), and Ativan (lorazepam).

Benzodiazepine Risks

The problem is benzodiazepines are prescribed way too often, and it sometimes leads to drug addiction. In the U.S., there were 85 million benzodiazepine prescriptions in 2007 alone! In the last seven years, traces of the drug were connected to a handful of celebrity deaths, including Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And, there’s more…

Some researchers are now linking the use of benzodiazepines with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The latest study was published late last year in the journal The BMJ. The study observed 1,796 people with Alzheimer’s disease and a 7,184-person control group. From 2000 to 2009, both groups included randomly selected older adults aged 66 and above.

Participants used benzodiazepines five years before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The case-control study suggests that there is a stronger link between the long-term use (more than 120 days) of benzodiazepines and an increased risk of dementia. The researchers would warrant against using benzodiazepines for a long period of time.

Despite Risks, Older Adults Still Prescribed Benzodiazepines

Another recent study found, that despite the many risks for older adults, benzodiazepines are still prescribed regularly to the elderly. In the study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers observed 2008 prescription patterns accumulated from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The researchers’ findings were quite interesting—the fraction of benzodiazepine prescriptions seems to increase with age. Approximately one in 20 adults between 18 and 80 years old were prescribed benzodiazepine in 2008. However, the fraction rose from 2.6% in the 18 to 35 age group to 8.7% among 65 to 80-year-olds.

The long-term use of benzodiazepine also increased with age. Approximately 14.7% of the 18 to 35-year-olds used benzodiazepines for a long-term period, but that number jumped to 31.4% in the elderly. It’s even more surprising that psychiatrists did not write most benzodiazepine prescriptions, including nine out of 10 scripts written for elderly patients. Overall, women were twice as likely (compared to men) to receive benzodiazepines.

What Are Natural Benzodiazepine Alternatives?

There has to be another option! Researchers suggested the need for a strategy to decrease benzodiazepine use. Luckily, in the natural health world there are remedies that include both anti-anxiety and sedative qualities that can help relax the nervous symptom with fewer side effects. These include:

5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan): 5-HTP has a calming effect on the mind, and also helps promote better sleep. However, 5-HTP should not be taken with anti-anxiety drugs like benzodiazepines.

Homeopathic remedies: Remedies that help with both sleep and anxiety include aconitum napellus, arsenicum album, kali phosphoricum, and lycopodium.

Passionflower: Passionflower is a common herbal remedy that promotes a sedative action. It helps relax the nervous system, but it doesn’t cause drowsiness when taken in the morning.

Calcium/magnesium: Calcium and magnesium are popular natural sleep aids that calm the nervous system. Both nutrients are effective for sleep and anxiety alone, but they are even more effective when taken together.

Other Natural Approaches to Anxiety and Sleep

Aromatherapy is also a very common method to reduce anxiety and improve sleep patterns. Chamomile and lavender are essential oils used for sleep and anxiety. Other possible natural remedies include valerian root, hops, skullcap, St. John’s wort, ashwagandha, kava, and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

Exercise is very important to help treat sleep and anxiety. You can naturally relieve anxiety and help your sleep patterns by doing yoga, qigong, tai chi, and meditation before bed. Other natural treatments include acupuncture, reiki healing, and hypnosis.

“Benzodiazepine Often Used in Older People Despite Risks,” National Institutes of Health web site, January 12, 2015;
Olfson, M., et al., “Benzodiazepine use in the United States,” JAMA Psychiatry 2015; 72(2): 136-142.
“Billioti de Gage, S., et al., “Benzodiazepine use and risk of Alzheimer’s disease: case-control study,” The BMJ 2014; 349: g5205, doi: 10.1136/bmj.g5205.
Ashton, H., “The treatment of benzodiazepine dependence,” Addiction 1994; 89(11): 1535-1541.
Grajales, C.A.G., “Statistics reveal a prescription drug epidemic,” Statistics Views web site, March 24, 2014;
Balch, J., et al., Prescription for Natural Cures: A Self-Care Guide for Treating Health Problems with Natural Remedies Including Diet, Nutrition, Supplements, and Other Holistic Methods (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004), 47-48, 359-360.