Benzodiazepines or “Benzos” are a group of drugs called minor tranquillisers. These drugs are prescribed by a doctor to help people with anxiety or sleep problems.

This class of drug is often prescribed to people with Alzheimer’s disease, however, a new study suggests that such drugs may increase the risk of death.

A new study has found that there is a 41 per cent higher mortality risk in people who use Benzodiazepines when compared to people who do not take them.

“I was surprised by how big the increased risk was,” said lead author Laura K. Saarelainen, told Medscape Medical News.

“We would like clinicians to know that these drugs have major adverse events from the very beginning of use,” she added. Saarelainen is a PhD candidate at the Kuopio Research Center for Geriatric Care, University of Eastern Finland.

The study was published online November 15 in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

People living with Alzheimer’s disease often have a higher frequency of chronic co-morbidities as well as behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia, also known as BPSD.

Treatment guidelines indicate when Benzodiazepines are used for shortterm use are generally safe and effective. The study showed, that for one third of patients following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease were prescribed these drugs. 

Though this was the first research to look into the fatal effect of Benzodiazepines, previous research has found that there are links to increased risk of hip fracture, stroke, and pneumonia.

“We chose benzodiazepines for study because they have not received a great deal of previous research, and information about adverse effects is lacking,” Saarelainen said.

The research used data from Medication Use and Alzheimer’s Disease cohort, which included all people who were diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s in Finland between 2005 and 2011.

It was noted that the observation of a 41 per cent increased risk for death with benzodiazepines use was “higher than the observations in previous studies investigating persons with dementia.”

The researchers attributed the adverse outcomes in benzodiazepines, partially, to the age-related changes in the way the body responds to certain chemicals – which increase the central nervous system (CNS) effects of these drugs in older persons.

Saarelainen added, “Unfortunately, we couldn’t study the question of the mechanism of death in these individuals. But based on previous studies, the deaths may be due to other outcomes, such as fractures and pneumonia, which are fatal in this population.”

This research emphasised the importance of using non-pharmacologic options for the symptoms of dementia

Saarelainen says that it is crucial to “educate caregivers to recognize the symptoms of behavioral disturbances and what might be causing these symptoms, and then address those causes.”

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