Many psychiatrists have had the grim experience of a newly referred patient explaining that her (and it is most often “her”) primary care doctor has been prescribing lorazepam 8 mg per day or alprazolam 6 mg per day and is sending her to you for help with ongoing anxiety. For conscientious psychiatrists, this means the beginning of a long tapering process along with a great deal of reassuring of a patient who is terrified of feeling overwhelmed with anxiety. The same problem occurs with patients taking large doses of sedatives who are still unable to sleep.
Mark Olfson and coauthors quantified benzodiazepine use in the United States in 2008 using a large prescription database, and found that 5.2% of adults between 18 and 80 years old were taking these drugs.1 The percentage increased with age, to 8.7% of those 65-80 years, in whom 31% received long-term prescriptions from a psychiatrist. Benzodiazepine use was twice as prevalent in women, compared with men. This occurs despite peer-reviewed publications and articles in the popular press regarding the risks of long-term benzodiazepine use in the elderly. Fang-Yu Lin and coauthors documented a 2.23-fold higher risk of hip fracture in zolpidem users that increased with age; elderly users had a 21-fold higher incidence of fracture, compared with younger users, and were twice as likely to sustain a fracture than elderly nonusers.2
Rashona Thomas and Edid Ramos-Rivas reviewed the risks of benzodiazepines in older patients with insomnia and document the increase in serious adverse events such as falls, fractures, and cognitive and behavioral changes.3 Many patients have ongoing prescriptions that make discontinuation difficult, given the potential for withdrawal agitation, seizures, insomnia, nightmares and even psychosis.
Greta Bushnell and coauthors pointed to the problem of simultaneous prescribing of a new antidepressant with a benzodiazepine by 10% of doctors initiating antidepressants.4 Over 12% of this group of patients continued benzodiazepines long term, even though there was no difference in the response to antidepressant treatment at 6 months. Those with long-term benzodiazepine use were also more likely to have recent prescriptions for opiates.
A Finnish research team found that 34% of middle-aged and 55% of elderly people developed long-term use of benzodiazepines after an initial prescription.5 Those who became long-term users were more often older male receivers of social benefits, with psychiatric comorbidities and substance abuse histories.
Kevin Xu and coauthors reviewed a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey dataset from 1999 to 2015 with follow-up on over 5,000 individuals in that period.6 They found doubling of all-cause mortality in users of benzodiazepines with or without accompanying use of opiates, a statistically significant increase.
Perhaps most alarming is the increased risk for Alzheimer’s dementia diagnosis in users of benzodiazepines. Two separate studies (Billoti de Gage and colleagues and Ettcheto and colleagues7,8) provided reviews of evidence for the relationship between use of benzodiazepines and development of dementia, and repeated warnings about close monitoring of patients and the need for alternative treatments for anxiety and insomnia in the elderly.