Patients prescribed benzodiazepines long-term risk dependence and disabling side-effects, but the help they need to withdraw from the drugs and recover is not available to them – Now, the findings of a new study show they could also be at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

The study, published in the in the BMJ, ‘Benzodiazepine use and risk of Alzheimer’s disease’ , found no increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s with benzodiazepine use of less than 3 months, but found the risk increased by up to 51% with use over 3 months and by 84% with use over 6 months. Additionally, the risk of Alzheimer’s was greater with the use of long acting benzodiazepines such as diazepam.

In 2011 findings from another study  showed that the risk of developing dementia decreased as the duration of benzodiazepine discontinuation increased.  Therefore  effective, evidence-based treatment is essential to enable patients to safely withdraw from benzodiazepines and minimise their risk.

Long-term problems

Concern that prolonged benzodiazepine use could cause dependence and cognitive impairment was raised with the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 1981. Measures to tackle the problem were agreed between the relevant parties, but the initiative was abandoned and all documents closed in the National Archives see independent on Sunday: Drugs linked to brain damage 30 years ago

The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) now recognise that benzodiazepines can cause lasting memory impairment.

No help for patients prescribed benzodiazepines

An estimated 1 million patients in the UK are being prescribed benzodiazepines long-term. Services to enable patients to withdraw from benzodiazepines and recover are not provided nationally so they are are obliged to continue taking the drugs – often for decades.

In 2012, a survey by the All Parliamentary Group on Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction (APPGITA) found that of 149 Primary Care Trusts found that only 6 of these provided specialist services for patients dependent on prescribed benzodiazepines. The only help has been left to a few local agencies, charities and voluntary organisations.

Problems caused by benzodiazepines prescribed beyond the guidelines of 2-4 weeks are rarely documented or reported. It has therefore been possible to avoid providing services for patients in this position as, unlike those misusing benzodiazepines, they are statistically invisible.

A public health issue

The authors of the latest study state their findings are of major importance to public health and and the study has been brought to the attention of Public Health Minister Jane Ellison, by  APPGITA.

It is a terrible injustice that so many people are being denied the chance to recover from the effects of long-term benzodiazepine use and the associated risks – particularly when the reason is that the drugs have been prescribed to them.