Conference Coverage

Misguided fear is keeping benzodiazepines from elderly



– Used appropriately, the benefits of benzodiazepines far outweigh the risks in elderly people, according to Carl Salzman, MD, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

Dr. Carl Salzman, Harvard Medical School, Boston M. Alexander Otto/MDedge News

Dr. Carl Salzman

Appropriate use means very low doses – 0.5 mg or less every day or b.i.d. – of short-acting benzodiazepines, either lorazepam, oxazepam, or temazepam. There’s no worry of dose escalation or addiction in the elderly, and since the drugs are not metabolized by the cytochrome P450 system, the risk of drug interactions is very small, except for a compounding effect with alcohol and other sedative hypnotics, such as zolpidem (Ambien). The fall risk is lower than it is with antidepressants and antipsychotics (Psychiatr Serv. 2003 Jul;54[7]:1006-1); (Arch Intern Med. 2009 Nov 23;169[21]:1952-60).

In short, the drugs are “wonderful” for geriatric anxiety and anxiety-related insomnia, Dr. Salzman said at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting.

Even so, it’s “very hard to get doctors and residents to prescribe them.” It’s like the benzodiazepine scare in the 1980s, about valium. “Newspapers were filled with stories about addicts. I’m having a little bit of déjà vu all over again,” he said.

This time around, the problem is a concern that benzodiazepines cause Alzheimer’s disease, plus collateral damage from the opioid crisis. People with addiction to opioids like benzodiazepines, because they boost the high, so they have significant street value, and drug seekers demand them in the clinic. Some clinicians would rather not deal with the drugs at all.

The Alzheimer’s worry stems largely from a widely reported review that found an association between Alzheimer’s disease and previous benzodiazepine use. The finding was based on public health insurance data from Quebec; no patients were seen (BMJ. 2014 Sep 9;349:g5205).

Among many “very large questions” about the study’s validity, people “may have been on benzos because they already had memory impairment and were anxious about it,” a common occurrence. In that case, “it’s not that benzos caused dementia; it was the other way around.” Also, there was no control for substance and alcohol use, Dr. Salzman said (J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2015 Feb;35[1]:1-3).

A more robust study followed patients 65 years and older for a mean of 7.3 years, comparing benzodiazepine users to nonusers. The team found a slightly higher risk of dementia in people with minimal exposure to benzodiazepines but not with the highest level of exposure, and concluded that the finding did “not support a causal association between benzodiazepine use and dementia” (BMJ. 2016 Feb 2;352:i90).

Meanwhile, a recent review of more than a million patients found either no or a minor increased risk of mortality, another concern with benzodiazepines in the elderly. “If a detrimental effect exists, it is likely to be much smaller than previously stated and to have uncertain clinical relevance. Residual confounding likely explains at least part of” it, the investigators concluded (BMJ. 2017 Jul 6;358:j294).

To be sure, short-term memory loss can occur with benzodiazepines, but patients did not seem to mind in a study Dr. Salzman conducted years ago in an upscale nursing home in Boston. A “dramatic” rebound was reported in short-term recall 2 weeks after volunteers tapered off benzodiazepines, mostly lorazepam, compared with those who stayed on them.

“I sat down to have lunch with the discontinuers, and I said to them, ‘Aren’t you glad that you are not taking these horrible drugs anymore, and your memory is so much better? They said, ‘No, what’s to remember? It was true that when we were taking those drugs, we might not have remembered what we watched on television the night before, but if you give a choice between feeling calm in the days, sleeping at night, and remembering what we watch on television, we’ll take the calm and the sleep every time,’ ” Dr. Salzman said.

He had no disclosures.

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