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Dementia risk from sleeping tablets: Increases risk to Seniors by 50%

Dementia risk from sleeping tablets: Pensioners on pills taken by 1.5m are  50% more likely to be hit, warns Harvard study

  • Academics  say side effects could be so harmful doctors should avoid prescribing  them
  • Scientists  believe sleeping pills may interfere with neurotransmitters in the brain,  possibly causing dementia
  • Doctors  made 10million sleeping pill prescriptions last year

By Sophie Borland

PUBLISHED:18:00 EST, 27  September 2012 | UPDATED:02:17 EST, 28 September 2012

Around 1.5m Britons are thought to be taking sleeping pills at any one time, with over 10million prescriptions handed out every year
Around 1.5m Britons are thought to be taking sleeping  pills at any one time, with over 10million prescriptions handed out every  year

Sleeping pills taken by more than a million  Britons significantly increase the risk of dementia, researchers warn  today.

Pensioners who used benzodiazepines – which  include temazepam and diazepam – were 50 per cent more likely to succumb to the  devastating illness, a Harvard University study found.

Academics believe the side effects of the  drugs may be so harmful that doctors should avoid prescribing them.

Around 1.5million Britons are believed to be  taking the pills at any one time and more than 10million  prescriptions are  handed out a year.

The researchers also estimate that up to 8  per cent of the over-65s have  used them within the last few years to treat  insomnia or anxiety.

But there is growing evidence that they have  serious side effects and a  number of studies have linked them to falls, memory  problems, panic  attacks and early death.

Academics from Harvard University in the US  and the University of Bordeaux in  France discovered that over-65s who had taken  the drugs within the last  15 years were 50 per cent more likely to get  dementia.

The drugs can only be obtained by a  prescription. They work by changing the way messages are transmitted to the  brain, which induces a calming  effect.

But scientists believe that at the  same time  they may be interfering with chemicals in the brain known as  neurotransmitters,  which may be causing dementia.

Professor Tobias Kurth, who works jointly at  Harvard University’s School of  Public Health and the University of Bordeaux,  said: ‘There is a  potential that these drugs are really harmful.

‘If it is really true that these drugs are  causing dementia that will be  huge. But one single study does not necessarily  show everything that is  going on, so there is no need to panic.

‘These drugs certainly have their benefits  and if you prescribe them in a way they should be prescribed they treat very  well.’

The study, published today in the British  Medical Journal, involved 1,063 men and women over the age of 65 for a period of  20 years in south west France. Initially none of the participants had dementia  and no one was taking benzodiazepines.

Risk: Academics believe the side-effects of some sleeping tablets could be so harmful doctors should avoid prescribing themRisk: Academics believe the side-effects of some  sleeping tablets could be so harmful doctors should avoid prescribing them

The researchers followed them up after 15  years and found that 253 had developed dementia. They worked out that out of 100  not taking the drug, 3.2 would be expected to get the illness.

But among 100 patients on these drugs, 4.8  would get dementia – a significantly higher proportion. The patients had taken  the pills at least once – over the course of a week or so – at some point in the  previous 15 years.

The study concluded: ‘Considering the extent  to which benzodiazepines are prescribed and the number of potential adverse  effects, indiscriminate widespread use should be cautioned against.’

In the last 20 years the number of  prescriptions for benzodiazepines has fallen by 40 per cent, largely due to  concerns that patients were becoming addicted.

But they remain one of the most commonly used  drugs and there are fears some patients are taking them for far too  long.

‘Considering the extent to which  benzodiazepines are prescribed and the number of potential adverse  effects,  indiscriminate widespread use should be cautioned against.’

A spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Society said: ‘This is the not the first time it has been suggested that these drugs could  have a negative impact on cognition. With this long-term study adding to the  evidence, it emphasises how important it is we properly monitor how treatments  for anxiety or sleep problems are used.’

A study last year from Cardiff University  found that Britons who had used the pills were 60 per cent more at risk from  dementia. The study of 1,160 men aged 45 to 85 found that 9 per cent had taken  them at least once over the last two decades.

Earlier this year American researchers found  the drugs heightened the risk of early death. Their study showed that even  patients taking between four and 18 pills a year were 3.6 times more likely to  die prematurely. Those on more than 132 pills a year were 5.3 times more likely  to die.

Dementia is one of the biggest burdens facing  the NHS. Some experts believe the cost of caring for patients will rise to £35billion annually within the next two decades.

There are currently 800,000 Britons with  dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease

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