Taking This Common Medication Long-Term Could Lead to Alzheimer's, Studies Say
It's prescribed all the time, but this drug may be dangerous in more ways than one.
When it comes to devastating diseases like Alzheimer's, identifying the risk factors is crucial. Some things, like your age, obviously can't be changed—the Alzheimer's Association reports that most people with Alzheimer's are 65 and older—but other factors are within our control. Practicing good oral hygiene, for example, can go a long way toward protecting your brain health.
Studies have also discovered an unsettling connection between an increased risk of dementia and certain medications. Read on to find out about one particular drug that researchers say may have a negative affect on your cognitive health.
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Eliminating risk factors is one way to counter the rise of dementia.
There is no known cure for many of the diseases that cause cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer's. And as the number of older Americans grows, so too will the number of new and existing cases of Alzheimer's, says the Alzheimer's Association, which notes that six million people in the U.S. are currently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, with that number projected to rise to almost 13 million by 2050.
Gill Livingston, a psychiatrist at University College London, told The New York Times that "it would be great if we had drugs that worked [but] they're not the only way forward." With a high failure rate of drugs being aimed at curing or treating cognitive decline, "Public health experts and researchers argue that it is past time to turn our attention to a different approach—focusing on eliminating a dozen or so already known risk factors, like untreated high blood pressure, hearing loss, and smoking, rather than on an exorbitantly priced, whiz-bang new drug," the Times reported.
Certain medications can impact brain health.
Many medications may potentially increase the risk of diseases such as Alzheimer's, reports AARP. The organization explains that statins—drugs that lower cholesterol in the blood—can decrease the levels of cholesterol in the brain. "These lipids are vital to the formation of connections between nerve cells—the links underlying memory and learning," they explain.
Anti-seizure drugs can also cause memory loss, the AARP notes, noting that these meds are "increasingly prescribed for nerve pain, bipolar disorder, mood disorders and mania." While these drugs can be effective, "All drugs that depress signaling in the CNS can cause memory loss," they warn.
Benzodiazepines affect connections between nerve cells in the brain.
Commonly known by brand names such as Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin, benzodiazepines are tranquilizing drugs, and "they are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States," WebMD reports. "When people without prescriptions obtain and take these drugs for their sedating effects, use turns into abuse."
Benzodiazepines impact the central nervous system (CNS) and are prescribed by doctors for reasons including insomnia, anxiety, and as an anesthetic before medical procedures, the site explains.
Reporting on a recent study about how benzodiazepines affect brain health, Neuroscience News explains that a "key role is played by immune cells of the brain known as microglia." Benzodiazepines "bind to a specific protein, the translocator protein (TSPO), on the surface of cell organelles of the microglia," the site says. "This binding activates the microglia, which then degrade and recycle synapses—that is, the connections between nerve cells."
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Benzodiazepines come with other dangers, as well.
Because of the way benzodiazepines affect the connections between nerve cells, long-term use can cause cognitive problems as well as spiking the risk of diseases that cause dementia, Neuroscience News reports. The drugs affect the brain in other ways that can be harmful as well, resulting in what the site calls "tolerance development and abuse liability." In other words, the more people take, the more they need to take in order to feel the effects—and the likelihood of abuse grows.
The American Addiction Centers explains that benzodiazepines increase levels of gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA) in the brain, which acts as a tranquilizer. They also raise dopamine levels, "the chemical messenger involved in reward and pleasure," the site says. "The brain may learn to expect the regular doses of [benzodiazepines] after a few weeks of taking them and therefore stop working to produce these chemicals on its own without them." All of these factors make benzodiazepines a potentially risky medication to use, especially on a long-term basis.
Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.