If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or sleep problems, then you know how disruptive they can be. It’s important to seek medical attention for help, and there are medications that can provide relief. Xanax and other sedatives like Valium are useful for managing some mental health and sleep disorders. This class of drugs, called benzodiazepines, slow down the brain and central nervous system. But doctors warn against using them as a long-term solution, especially for older adults. Use of benzodiazepines in older adults is associated with a higher risk of falls, car accidents, and even an increased risk of demetia. Now, new research is suggesting that older adults are also more susceptible to addiction to drugs like Xanax and Valium.
Researchers have found that older adults are more likely to become addicted to drugs like Xanax.
Dr. Lauren Gerlach is a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Michigan and lead author of the research. Her team examined the use of benzodiazepines in older, low-income adults. The patients they interviewed were not living in nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities. The patients were screened for mental health issues, and researchers gathered data on their prescription drug history.
Of the 576 patients interviewed who got a prescription for benzodiazepines between 2008 – 2016, 152 patients were still using the drug after one year. However, only a handful of patients had received psychiatric or psychological care in the two years prior to being prescribed the meds. All of the prescriptions were written by doctors who didn’t specialize in mental health, like a primary care physician.
Guidelines that state drugs like Xanax should rarely be given to patients over the age of 65. However, the average age of patients in the study who received their first prescription was 78.
Says Gerlach, “The vast majority of mental healthcare, and prescribing of psychiatric medications such as benzodiazepines to older adults, is by primary care physicians and other nonpsychiatrists. Since mental health providers see only a very small minority of older adults who have mental health issues, we need to support primary care providers better as they manage these patients’ care.”
One of the factors cited for the continued use of the medication was poor sleep. But benzodiazepines should not be used long-term to resolve sleep issues. In fact, experts believe the drugs could actually make the sleep problems worse when used long-term. Dr. Grace Cheng is a geriatric pharmacist at the University of California Los Angeles. She says that patients may become dependent on the medication after seeing their symptoms improve quickly. However, says Cheng, the drugs do not actually address the underlying issues like chronic insomnia, anxiety, or depression.
There’s no shame in needing help from drugs like Xanax for quick management of symptoms. But it’s so important that doctors check in with their patients, and work on sustainable, long-term treatment to address the real issues.