Can Xanax Lead to Dementia?
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Can Xanax Lead to Dementia?

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This post was originally published on September 24, 2014.

BBC News reported on a study done in Canada linking extended use of benzodiazepines—Klonopin, Xanax, Valium, Ativan—to an increased risk in Alzheimer’s disease. Just to clarify, “extended use” is considered anything over three months, according to this piece—which seems vastly un-extended if you ask me. The former benzo users I know popped Xanax like it was their life’s purpose for years. Of course, they are clearly drug addicts who never took their medication anywhere near the ballpark of “as prescribed.” But I have always been under the impression that drugs like Xanax and Valium were meant to be taken on an “as needed” basis—not every day. Still, I can almost guarantee you that anyone who has ever abused benzos—or any prescription medication for that matter—earnestly believed they needed it. That is what is tricky about prescription pill addiction.

The Chicken or the Egg?

In this case, however, there may be some truth to this justification. While the study—which compared 2,000 Quebeckers over 66 who have Alzheimer’s with 7,000 healthy people in the same age range also living in Quebec—showed a connection between extended benzo use and dementia, it’s hard for researchers to tell what came first. Since benzodiazepines are prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, which are both early indicators of Alzheimer’s, it’s difficult to know if it was actually the medication that led to the dementia or if the oncoming dementia is what resulted in the need for the medication. Either way, what no one seems point out is that these people are all from Quebec—a place that almost requires you to have dementia in order to survive the winter.

Public and Personal Enemy

Although the link between benzos and Alzheimer’s is still unclear, the lead researcher in the study, Sophie Billioti de Gage, feels that long-term use of this kind of medication should be looked at as a public health issue. And there is certainly truth to that. Regardless of whether or not drugs like Klonopin are a contributing factor in dementia, they are certainly a contributing factor in addiction—and happen to have a horrible detoxification process as well as one of the longest ones out there (sometimes lasting up to two years). This gives people who have been using benzos long enough to be addicted a good reason not to stop, especially if they are older. Benzodiazepine withdrawal is hard on anyone’s body but surely worse on people over 66.

So What Is the Solution?

First, we need to look at the doctors. Any physician prescribing Valium as a daily solution for anxiety should be subject to scrutiny. There are plenty of non-narcotic daily dose drugs available that treat anxiety and aren’t addictive—like Paxil, Celexa and BuSpar. Although it’s hard to find a non-narcotic sleep aid for acute problem sleepers (besides Trazodone, which many can’t tolerate), there are other non-benzo sleeping pills on the market—like Ambien—that may work just as well and not lead to dementia. But buyers beware—if you do switch to Ambien, make sure to stay off Facebook. I have seen some very strange posts from friends who I later found out were typing in the midst of an Ambien blackout.

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.