“Millions of older Americans are taking these drugs regularly. In most cases, they are addicted to them.”
~ Sidney Wolfe, Director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, in Washington, D.C.
Prescription benzodiazepine addiction is hitting a specific segment of the US population hard, and it’s probably where you’d least expect it – senior citizens.
Among 65-to-80-year-old Americans, benzodiazepines are very widely prescribed, primarily for insomnia, depression, and anxiety. A study that was published in February 2015’s JAMA Psychiatry revealed that almost 9% of elderly men and 11% of elderly women regularly take benzodiazepines like Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Klonopin.
The co-author of the cited report, Dr. Michael Schoenbaum, PhD, who also serves as a Senior Adviser at the National Institutes of Mental Health, says, “That’s an extraordinarily high rate of use for any class of medications. It seemed particularly striking given the identified clinical concerns associated with benzodiazepine use and anybody, but especially in older adults.”
That word “especially” is very apt, as seniors face particular risks due to the effects of “benzo” drugs:
- Falls – resulting in injuries that can cause or worsen serious health conditions
- Delirium, confusion, and memory problems– which can lead to a misdiagnosis of senility
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Interactions with other medications
- Increased risk for dependency and addiction
These serious side effects are why many benzodiazepines are on the Beers List for “Potentially Inappropriate Drugs for Elderly”.
Why So Many Seniors Take Benzodiazepines
Many senior citizens are prescribed benzodiazepines because of problems that are greater within their age group, including:
- Depression, from a traumatic event such as the loss of a spouse
- Anxiety, from such issues as loneliness or health worries.
- Insomnia, almost 40% of seniors report difficulties in sleeping through the night
A July 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society shows that older Americans are given mental health drugs and more than twice the rate that they are given to younger adults.
Dr. Donovan Maust, M.D., MS, the geriatric psychiatrist who headed the study, said “…these data suggest that we also need to be mindful of the possibility of overtreatment, especially given the changing balance of risk and benefit as patients age.”
Why Do so Many Seniors Get Addicted to Benzodiazepines?
When a person starts taking a benzodiazepine, they will usually feel better – improved mood, lessened anxiety, and better quality sleep. And, since they feel better, they take more of the drug, and ask their doctor for a refill.
Seniors are more likely to need recurring refills over the long term, because they typically deal with issues that don’t go away quickly, if at all. Grief over the loss of a spouse, for example, can result in feelings of anxiety, depression, insomnia that can last months.
This can be the root of the problem – benzodiazepine medications are generally considered safe over the short term, and generally, aren’t supposed to be taken longer than four months.
Also, although seniors need lower doses of benzodiazepines because of their less-efficient metabolisms, many doctors fail to take that fact into account. This can mean that older patients are given inappropriately-high doses.
This combination of higher-than-recommended dosages and length means that when the drug is discontinued or reduced, the now-physically dependent senior patient will suffer severe anxiety attacks, greatly-worsened insomnia, and other symptoms of withdrawal.
To alleviate these harshly unpleasant symptoms, the person will usually go right back to taking the benzodiazepine, even if it means changing physicians.
Negative consequences… physical dependency and withdrawal…continued usage despite those consequences… this is the definition of addiction.
If you are or have a relative who is a senior citizen who has been prescribed benzodiazepine medication, and you are worried that there may be a problem with dependency or addiction, then it is crucial that you get professional help to deal with a possible substance abuse disorder.
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