Conference Coverage

Benzodiazepines, hypnotics don’t increase Alzheimer’s pathology



– Benzodiazepines and hypnotics, including the so-called “Z drugs,” don’t significantly increase the pathological features typical of Alzheimer’s disease but long-term users may experience some neuronal loss in the nucleus basalis, Chris Fox, MD, reported at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.

Michele G. Sullivan/MDedge News

Dr. Chris Fox

The nucleus basalis is rich in cholinergic neurons and associated with arousing stimuli, including positive and aversive appetite, sustained attention, and the interplay of reality and visual perception.

“Neuronal loss in the nucleus basalis offers mechanisms for the impact of benzodiazepine and anticholinergic drug use on the aging brain and highlights important areas for future research,” said Dr. Fox, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England.

“The risk [for taking a Z drug] in the United Kingdom is high, with about 7.5 million older adults using potentially inappropriately prescribed anticholinergic and/or Z-drug medications. Despite well-documented cognitive impairment associated with these medicines, hypnotics are still used for long durations and exceed the recommended limits,” Dr. Fox said. “There’s no association with better cognition, quality of life, or improved behavior when they are given to people with dementia. In fact, we’ve seen a 60% increased risk of hip fractures – an increase from a 3% to a 15% yearly risk.”

Dr. Fox and colleagues studied the brains of 337 subjects who were included in the U.K. Medical Research Council’s Cognitive Function and Ageing Studies (CFAS). The study was intended to explore the incidence of dementia in the United Kingdom, examine incidence variation among regions, and explore factors increasing dementia risk and rate of progression.

The first study, which began in 1989 and lasted until 2015, followed subjects older than 65 years for up to 12 years. Each subject was regularly interviewed and underwent cognitive testing about every 1.5 years. Benzodiazepine use was considered an especially important aspect, because the medications are frequently used in the elderly and seem linked to injuries and cognitive status at last follow-up.

In CFAS, 21% of subjects reported at least one incidence of anticholinergic use, and 12% reported recurrent use. Another 17% reported any hypnotic use, and 11% reported recurrent use. The main indications were as an antidepressant (13%), for urological issues (4%), as antiparkinsonism drugs (1%), as antipsychotics (3%), and as antihistamines (3%). Overall, 18% reported concurrent use of benzodiazepines and hypnotics. At time of death, 46% had a diagnosis of dementia.

“Those reporting benzodiazepine use were more likely to be women and to have depression or sleep problems,” Dr. Fox noted, although he didn’t give specific hazard ratios. After adjustment for numerous factors, including age, sex, stroke, hypertension, depression, anxiety, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, duration of sleep problems, education, and smoking, he found no statistically increased risk of amyloid brain plaques or tau tangles, the pathologic hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Anticholinergic use was associated with a significant 60% reduction in cortical atrophy (odds ratio, 0.40) and recurrent use with a 61% reduction in amyloid angiopathy (OR, 0.39).

However, both medication classes were associated with greater neuronal loss in the nucleus basalis. Recurrent use of anticholinergic drugs increased neuronal loss by 300% (OR, 4.12), while any use nearly tripled it (OR, 2.87). Recurrent use of benzodiazepines was associated with increased neuronal loss in the region (OR, 3.76) as well. However, these associations did not reach statistical significance. But there was a statistically significant association with any use of benzodiazepines and neuronal loss in the nucleus basalis (OR, 6.84).

“We did find greater neuronal loss in the nucleus basalis associated with benzodiazepine and anticholinergic drugs use,” Dr. Fox said. “The nucleus basalis is rich in neurons that stimulate the cholinergic system of the neocortex. Neuronal loss in this region is thought to occur in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Other studies have suggested that volume loss in the basal forebrain cholinergic site leads to widespread cortical atrophy in patients with mild cognitive impairment. We did not observe the widespread cortical atrophy, however.

“Given that the strongest associations were observed for benzodiazepines and neuronal loss in the nucleus basalis, it may be that the drugs were prescribed to treat the symptoms of ‘cholinergic deficiency syndrome,’ Our findings suggest that the symptoms of dementia lead to an increase of benzodiazepines as opposed to the medications actually causing Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

Dr. Fox reported no financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Fox C et al. AAIC 2019, Abstract 34017.

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