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Too Many Older Adults Taking Anti-Anxiety Meds For Too Long

Despite warnings against long-term use, one in four older adults are prescribed anti-anxiety medications for sleep issues, depression and related disorders for too long, a new study has found.

When adults in their retirement years use drugs like Valium or Xanax to calm anxiety or help them sleep, there is a significant risk of becoming drug-dependent, the new research indicates.

Researchers at the University of Michigan monitored almost 600 adults averaging 78 years of age. About one in four who were prescribed benzodiazepine, referring to the commonly prescribed type of medication also known as tranquilizers. Benzodiazepines can raise the risk for car crashes, falls, broken hips and other harmful side effects, experts caution. The drugs are used to treat panic attacks, insomnia, seizures, restless leg syndrome, and alcohol withdrawal.

The new study, published this week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine [1], concludes that there should be an “end in mind when prescribing a benzodiazepine, by beginning with a short-duration prescription and engage patients in discussions of when to reevaluate their symptoms and begin tapering the patient off,” according to lead author Lauren Gerlach, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Rachel Rohaidy, M.D. [2], a psychiatrist with Care & Counseling [3] at Baptist Health South Florida, says physicians and psychiatrists should prescribe anti-anxiety meds for panic disorders and other similar conditions for a fixed period of time –and primarily when a patient’s daily activities are disrupted by their condition.

“A patient should take them when they are unable to fulfill their daily life,” says Dr. Rohaiday. “For example, they can’t go to work because of the panic. There are some points when medications are necessary. You have to do something about the anxiety a person is having. Small doses of these benzodiazepines can help. There is a place for them.”

Teresita Calero, psychotherapist with Care & Counseling at Baptist Health South Florida, says she works with Dr. Rohaidy and others to address concerns about long-term use of these medications. “What I tell patients is that you might need it for a reason or season, not a lifetime,” says Ms. Calero. She adds that patients who have anxiety or panic disorders should not be ashamed of their condition and should understand that they can get help with proper care and management by
cargivers.

In the study, researchers tracked benzodiazepine use among older adults who were given their first prescription between 2008 and 2016. Only a few had had any psychiatric, psychological or psychosocial care over the past two years, the report said. The study mostly looked at patients who got their prescription from a primary care doctor or other non-psychiatrist physician, because that’s how most seniors get these anti-anxiety drugs, the authors explained.

The most common side effects associated with benzodiazepines are: sedation, dizziness, weakness, and unsteadiness. Other more severe side effects can include: a feeling of depression, headaches, sleep disturbance, confusion, irritability, aggression, excitement, and memory impairment. Always consult with your doctor on possible side effects and dosage of any anti-anxiety medications or any other prescribed drugs.