Like many drugs, those prescribed for anxiety disorders, like diazepam and temazepam, have a number of known side-effects like daytime sleepiness, falls, an increased risk of dementia — and they are also addictive.
Now, though, a new study has found evidence for a long-suspected danger of these drugs as well as common sleeping pills: an increased risk of death.
The large study, published in the British Medical Journal, looked at data from over 100,000 patients who had been to their family doctors across seven years (Weich et al., 2014).
It found that taking anti-anxiety drugs (like diazepam) or sleeping pills (like zolpidem/Ambien) doubled the risk of death.
In real terms this meant:
“…there were about four excess deaths linked to drug use per 100 people followed for an average of 7.6 years after their first prescription” (Weich et al., 2014)
There was also a dose-response effect: the more of the drugs people took, the higher their risk of death.
To reach its conclusions, the study matched people who had taken the anti-anxiety and sleeping pills with other similar patients who had not taken the drugs.
The study also controlled for psychiatric illnesses like anxiety and sleeping disorders.
Many of the patients in the study received more than one drug and 5% had taken drugs of three different types over the study period.
Benzodiazepines — like diazepam and temazepam — were the most commonly prescribed drugs.
Professor Scott Weich, who led the study, said:
“The key message here is that we really do have to use these drugs more carefully.
This builds on a growing body of evidence suggesting that their side effects are significant and dangerous.
We have to do everything possible to minimise over reliance on anxiolytics [anti-anxiety drugs] and sleeping pills.
That’s not to say that they cannot be effective.
But particularly due to their addictive potential we need to make sure that we help patients to spend as little time on them as possible and that we consider other options, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, to help them to overcome anxiety or sleep problems.”
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