Older adults taking psychiatric medications, such as Valium or Xanax, may be at increased risk of dementia, a new French study suggests. In the reports, adults older than 65 who took drugs known as benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety drugs) were 50 percent more likely to develop dementia over a 15-year period, compared with those who did not take the drugs.
Britain’s Independent newspaper published a bombshell for psychiatry and medicine: the country’s Medical Research Council had sat on warnings 30 years earlier that benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax can cause brain damage. As 11.5 million prescriptions for these drugs were issued in 2008 in Britain alone, I focused on the consequences of the cover-up for the millions affected. Given the feedback I received from numerous patients in Britain and the States attesting to their profound difficulties in quitting such medication, as well as their impairment from the drugs many years later, I want to retrace the drugs’ controversial history, to help explain why the suppression of evidence about their side effects is deservedly national news in Britain, and why it should be here in the States, too.
“The usage of medications, particularly benzodiazepines and anti-depressants, may contribute to a longer reaction time when faced with the unexpected while driving.
“In this study, older drivers exposed to benzodiazepines were five times as likely to be involved in a hospitalisation crash, and almost twice as likely for drivers exposed to anti-depressants.”
Given that benzodiazepines and anti-depressants are frequently used by people over 60, and polypharmacy (using several drugs at the same time) is also more common among this group, the study’s results bear great implications.
Americans revere personal responsibility. It resonates with our respect for accountability and frontier justice. That may explain why we have a hard time believing that medications could alter people’s personalities or lead them to behave badly. Violence as a drug side effect seems preposterous to patients, pharmacists, physicians and even juries. Trying to use the “Prozac defense” to justify killing or hurting someone is often met with scorn..
Antidepressant prescribing information, for example, warns physicians that, “All patients being treated with antidepressants for any indication should be monitored appropriately and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, and unusual changes in behavior.” Drugs such as citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil) and sertraline (Zoloft) carry warnings about aggressiveness, agitation, hostility, impulsivity and irritability.
The stop-smoking medication varenicline (Chantix) also comes with warnings about agitation, hostility, depressed mood and changes in behavior. The trouble with such warnings is that people don’t imagine that these bad things could happen to them.
Touted as the world’s first wonder drug, benzodiazepines—”benzos” for short—were widely prescribed in the 1960s for anxiety and stress. Within a decade they had become the most commonly used treatment for such conditions in the States and Britain. Use of benzos such as Valium, Mogadon, and Librium in both countries was widespread. Today, the same class of drugs—including Klonopin, Xanax, and Ativan—is still frequently prescribed for anxiety and panic. Widely known to be addictive and to cause a range of serious side effects, benzos became less popular in the 1980s and 1990s owing largely to the rise of SSRI antidepressants, which were widely considered to be safer and nonaddictive. A combined search for benzos and “adverse effects” on PubMed yields a staggering 15,157 hits, ranging from sleep disorders and increased violence among patients to discontinuation problems and dependency issues that bear all the hallmarks of a serious addiction.