Benzodiazepines Are More Popular than They Deserve

Benzodiazepines are strong drugs prescribed for a range of problems, including lung disease, depression and anxiety. Adverse outcomes, including life-threatening side effects, have been associated with benzodiazepines, but until now there has been little data on how frequently these drugs are prescribed, and who uses them.

As reported on, a study recently published in the journal Drugs and Aging helps to define the scope of benzodiazepine use by older adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). And the results are unsettling.

Many brand names in the benzodiazepine class are familiar: Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan and Ambien are members. They’re so well known, they were the subject of banter between the two troubled lead characters in the movie “Silver Linings Playbook.”

In Canada, where the study was conducted, COPD (also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis) affects 5 to 10 people in 100. Often, it’s caused by smoking. Despite the fact that, according to ScienceDaily, the guidelines of the American Thoracic Society/European Respiratory Society recommend that COPD patients not use benzodiazepines because of potential respiratory-related side effects, “I see a large number of COPD patients taking this medication class to help relieve disease-related symptoms like insomnia, depression and anxiety,” said the study’s lead author.

The side effects, he said, include memory loss, decreased alertness, falls and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.

The study examined more than 100,000 adults older than 65 with COPD to see how many new benzodiazepines were dispensed and the severity of each patient’s pulmonary symptoms while on the drug.

Dispensing new benzodiazepines was common-more than 1 in 3 adults got new meds. The more severe the symptoms, the higher the use of the drugs. Those with the most severe symptoms had the highest number of repeat prescriptions and early refills.

Benzodiazepines also were dispensed to patients experiencing flare-ups of COPD.

“These findings are new and they are concerning because they tell us that the patients most at risk to be affected by the adverse effects of this drug are the same ones that are using it with the most frequency,” the authors said “This medication could be causing harm in this already respiratory-vulnerable population.”

Benzodiazepines can be effective as a sleep aid, but they have been found to affect breathing ability and oxygen levels at night. Generally, their use should be infrequent, measured and only after a complete discussion with your doctor about the harms as well as benefits, especially if you are older or suffer from lung problems.

If you take one of these drugs and experience an adverse event, report it to the FDA’s data collection site MedWatch by linking here or calling (800) 332-1088.

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