High Rates of Risky Benzodiazepine Use in the Elderly
Benzodiazepines, a class of medications often used to treat severe anxiety and insomnia, were first introduced in the 1960’s. The general risks of over-use and addiction have been well-known, and more recently, risks specifically for older adults have been found to include cognitive impairment, delirium, increased risk of falls, fractures, and car accidents. In 2012, the American Geriatric Society began warning clinicians of the dangers associated with using benzodiazepines in the elderly, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has been monitoring benzodiazepine prescriptions in this at-risk population as well.
But despite the years of warnings, new data from Athena Health, collected from over 3 million patients and published in a recent report, shows that adults over age 65 are given these drugs more than any other age group, with 10% of women over 65 and just under 6% of men over 65 being prescribed benzodiazepines. These drugs may be prescribed to this population to treat anxiety, stress, depression, even grief or loss, and with recent federal pushes to decrease the use of antipsychotic medications in the elderly, it is possible that some prescribers may turn to benzodiazepines in an attempt to manage challenging mental health symptoms and behaviors previously treated with antipsychotics.
Given the serious risks that benzodiazepines pose for the elderly population, it is critical for the healthcare system to ensure the availability of safer alternatives for the treatment of mental health conditions, including various behavioral therapies to help cope with and reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Additionally, consumers of geriatric mental health services and their families should be educated about the potentially life-threatening risks associated with these medications, as well as any other viable treatment alternatives.