Sleeping pill warning for Alzheimer’s

By Jasminee Sahoye

Benzodiazepines significantly raise chances of Alzheimer’s disease if used long term, a new study says.
Benzodiazepines significantly raise chances of Alzheimer’s disease if used long term, a new study says.

A new study by Canadian and French researchers has revealed that long-term use of pills to help with sleeping and anxiety could increase an elderly person’s chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease by up to 51%.

Scientists from the University of Bordeaux in France and the University of Montreal tracked 8,890 people over the age of 65 living in Quebec.

All participants were members of the province’s drug plan and were analyzed from Jan. 1, 2000, to Dec. 31, 2009.

The team monitored which participants used benzodiazepines – medications commonly prescribed to treat anxiety or sleeplessness – and which were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

The findings, published in the British Medical Journal, found that 1,796 of the subjects were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s within six years of the study.

“When compared with the non-Alzheimer’s control group, past use of benzodiazepines for three months or more was associated with a 43% to 51% higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s. Longer use of benzodiazepines led to higher risk,” the article said.

Researchers say benzodiazepines are “valuable tools” for managing anxiety and insomnia but should be used in “short duration and not exceed three months.”

Nathan Herrmann, head of geriatric psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, told CBC News that benzodiazepines should be used for short-term management of anxiety and sleep disorders as “it has been long recommended.” He added that the medication could make the elderly “unsteady. They could fall and fracture their hips and they could become addicted.”

The study took into account that symptoms such as anxiety, depression and sleeplessness often indicate the early stages of dementia but researchers concluded their results were not altered greatly when adjusted for these symptoms.

Herrmann said benzodiazepines also affect memory. “They are bad for the brain. So even before this study, we’ve known we shouldn’t have elderly people on them for a long time.”

Herrmann said there are non-medicated treatments for insomnia and anxiety, which he uses. “I teach them sleep hygiene (which includes) telling them only use the bedroom for sleep, making sure it’s quiet and dark, not drinking coffee in the afternoon and limiting food intake in the evening.”

Meanwhile, the Ontario Brain Institute is studying the specific effects of physical activity on the prevention and management of Alzheimer’s disease. The institute, which has partnered with McMaster University in Hamilton, says it’s not too late for physical activity for older adults.

“Most older adults are not getting sufficient exercise for good health,” said Jennifer Heisz, an assistant professor at McMaster on the research team. “We know there is a direct link between exercise and a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s, but we don’t really understand the mechanism. Our research is focused on looking at the intricacies of different kinds of physical activity and memory specifically for brain health.”

Discussing exercise plans with a primary care physician is a good first step. Starting slowly, the institute recommends these activities in bouts of 10 minutes or more:

  • Breathe and lift your arms over your head.
  • Use the stairs.
  • Engage in active hobbies (bird watching, fishing, gardening).
  • Dance.
  • Do some light housework.
  • Play with your grandchildren.
  • Take an after-dinner stroll with a partner.
  • Walk around the mall.
  • Get up and walk around during TV commercials.