Sad News For Insomniacs: New Study Links Sleeping Pills With Alzheimer's

Alarming news today from a study published in the British Medical Journal: long-term use of benzodiazepines, anti-anxiety meds often prescribed for sleeping issues, may be linked to Alzheimer’s. As someone who’s long been tortured by the vicious beast that is insomnia and relies on these chemicals to combat it, I am personally disturbed by this news.

The findings are definitely disconcerting. The team, which included scientists from the University of Bordeaux and the University of Montreal, analyzed data from 8,890 people over the age of 65 living in Quebec over a six-year span. Nearly 1,800 of these participants had Alzheimer’s. And comparisons between the healthy population and the Alzheimer’s-afflicted unearthed some alarming finds: 

  • When compared with the healthy control group, past usage of benzodiazepines (y'know, like Valium, Xanax, Klonopin) for three months or more was associated with a 43-51% higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s.
  • The longer benzos had been used, the higher the risk was.

That said, researchers also identified benzos as “valuable tools” for managing anxiety and insomnia—but that they should be used for a “short duration and not exceed three months.”

The study concluded: "Benzodiazepine use is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease." Also that "unwarranted long-term use of these drugs should be considered as a public health concern."

Given that Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and someone in this country develops the heinous disease every 67 seconds, we have to confirm that yes, this is a pretty sizable concern. 

How Freaked Out Should Benzodiazepine Users Be?

So in light of all this, should I be freaking the ef out right now given my on-and-off again, though enduring, relationship with benzos for sleep?  And if so, what the hell do I do to quell my anxiety about it, as yoga isn’t for another few hours and apparently popping these pills increases the likelihood of dementia!?

Before we (read: insomniacs/benzo-consumers) all start breathing out of paper bags, there are a few things to note. This study was conducted with people over the age of 65 so, according to Professor Guy Goodwin, head of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the findings "could mean that the drugs cause the disease, but is more likely to mean that the drugs are being given to people who are already ill."

That noted, the study took into account that anxiety, depression and sleeplessness often indicate the early stages of dementia—and concluded that results were not much affected when adjusted for these symptoms.

Still, Dr. Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said:

"This study shows an apparent link between the use of benzodiazepines and Alzheimer's disease although it's hard to know the underlying reason behind the link.”

Let's hope there is some weird X factor unrelated to benzo usage that causes this link. Because given that sleep loss can contribute to heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes—all of which also ushers in a premature death—us insomniacs really just can't catch a goddamn break.

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