older woman hand to head looks confused

Q. My wife has taken clonazepam for more than 15 years now and shows signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Is there clinical evidence to support this connection?

A. Clonazepam belongs to a class of drugs called benzodiazepines (benzos). They are among the most widely prescribed medications in the U.S. Other drugs in this category include alprazolam, diazepam, flurazepam, lorazepam and temazepam.

Such medications are prescribed for the short-term relief of symptoms of anxiety or insomnia. Physicians may prescribe certain benzos to ease muscle spasms or help control seizure disorders.

A Canadian study published in the journal BMJ (online, Sept. 9, 2014) reported a link between benzodiazepines and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in older people. The longer people used such medications, the greater their risk of developing dementia.

Similar results were revealed in a long-term French study (BMJ, online, Sept. 27, 2012). The authors concluded that

“The findings of this large prospective population based study show that new use of benzodiazepines is associated with an approximately 50% increase in the risk of dementia.”

It is impossible to say whether any given individual’s long-term use of such medications contributed to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, but researchers are cautioning that benzos can increase the risk of falls and fractures and could have a negative impact on mental functioning when taken over a long period of time.

Do NOT Stop Benzos Suddenly!

When health professionals prescribe or dispense benzodiazepines they may not mention that stopping such medications can be challenging (and that is a nice way to describe the problem). Many people report severe symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, jitteriness, agitation, irritability, impaired concentration, panic, insomnia, faulty memory, depression, headache, fatigue, muscle cramps, muscle twitching, seizures, sweating, diarrhea, blurred vision and decreased appetite.

It is always hard to comprehend such a long list of adverse reactions. Here is the human face of alprazolam withdrawal from D.P.

“I have a friend who is addicted to Xanax [alprazolam]. She has been to drug treatment centers 3 times to try and get off of it, but can’t bear the symptoms involved with withdrawal long enough to get over that hump and goes home before she completes the program.

“I have known her over 24 years and she has in fact become less able to function and be involved socially. She wishes she had never taken this drug. There are certainly other anti-anxiety meds that don’t lead to such severe addiction as Xanax. Why don’t doctors prescribe these instead?”

People who need to come off benzos must do so under close medical supervision. It requires patience and persistence. VERY gradual tapering of the dose over months can be the key to success. Sometimes it is necessary to switch someone from a short-acting benzodizepine like alprazolam to a longer-acting medication such as diazepam or chlordiazepoxide. If symptoms surface, a gradual step up for a few days may calm the nervous system. Whatever the strategy, make sure the health professional is experienced in this process.

You will find our FREE Guide to Psychological Side Effects at this link.

Share your own benzo experience below and rate this article by voting at the top of the post.

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  1. Rose P
    Pittsburgh PA

    I have been taking clonipin 1 mg for 25 years at night to sleep. I unfortunately had to go to a new psch. Dr as mine retired. At my first visit she automatically wants me to stop taking clonipin,she says it causes dementia. I said I would if she could give me something to help me sleep that works. She prescribed visteral. It does not work. I have tried to go to .05 and 2 100 mg of visteral. I feel like I am not sleeping at all and when I do I am having horrible nightmares. The next day I feel like a zombie. I want to go back up on the clonipin ill take my chances with dementia. My memory is already shot. I am a 55 yrs old women. Opinions???

    • Kim

      My remarkable Uncle, who was a long time psychiatrist, with a brilliant mind, loving personality, and great life, has been taking Clonipin for many many years. He is now in his 80’s and suffering from significant dementia. Our family is dealing with complicated issues regarding his health care and possible institutionalization. It’s incredibly sad. Long term ramifications being experience for many family members now as a result of medication choices made to treat moderate anxiety and depression symptoms. I do not recommend taking any medications that aren’t necessary for your physical survival – or absolutely necessary to enhance improved health. My husband and I have made a pact to treat food/nutrition as our primary medicine for our bodies, along with daily 1-2 times exercise, excellent water hydration, carefully fine tuning a healthy daily work/life balance, reducing all possible drama/life stress, and maintaining consistent daily sleep habits. Our goal is to remain off of all medications as long as possible with daily health efforts. Watching our old generation of parents make their choices is truly convicting us to make out health our top priority – and our daily health habits are critical. I wish you the very best!

      • Kim

        PS. My Husband went off of a long time prescription, a high does of Xanex which he thought he would never survive. Well, he did survive, and he is amazingly healthy now, and so thankful he went off! This was a life changing experience for the better. He will never ever use Xanex ever again. He accomplished this physical withdrawal at an excellent dual disorder/mood disorder specialty program called, “The Center: A Place of Hope,” in Edmonds, WA. We can highly recommend this program. A perfectly respectable, professional, superb day treatment program in the beautiful sea side community of Edmonds! So thankful that there is truly healing, but you have to have the courage to believe it’s possible, and find the right place for help.

  2. Samuel
    Great Falls, Montana

    Has there been any research about benzos and memory loss in warmer climate regions? Southern Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, ect. I’m on clonazepam and have noticed, for quite a long time, a clear loss of memory, especially during the winter months when the natural gas heater is in use. Once the heater starts up, I notice a distinct change in memory loss and respiratory problems. However, I still notice memory loss during summers yet not as bad as during the cold months when the heater must be used. They must do research in cold to temperate locations and tropical locations. I will be honest and write that it’s mainly the heater causing the memory loss. Benzos are a contributing factor, however.

  3. Henry

    Again, no one ever speaks the actual dose OR the age group!

    This stuff is so vague!

    Before scaring and confusing people that would be kind of nice to know.

    For me Im not even 40… and take small chips off and on as needed. Does that mean I’m likely to get alz ‘down the road’ ??

  4. Tammy
    Oregon (OR)

    I’m a 59 y old female, who has been prescribed clonipin for nearly 25 years. My condition is extreme panic, agoraphobia ( specifically, fear of leaving my house, and generalized anxiety disorder. I don’t know what happened to me when I was a kid. Or if it even plays a role in my mental health diagnoses, which also includes major depressive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive control disorder. I’m on disability and will never be able to work. I am college educated but much of what I learned is lost. My major was psychology. How can I treat others? It’s not going to happen.

    Every time I’ve tried to stop the clonipin, I end up in the psych hospital and it’s like being incarcerated for me. The withdrawal from clonipin is so intense and overwhelming. Symptoms include rapid heartbeat ( feel like I’m having a heart attack ), blood pressure skyrockets, loud ringing in my ears, uncontrollable tremors and shaking, feelings of losing my mind, inability to talk for fear it will push me over the edge. There’s much more, but I’ve tried at least 6 times. Now that I’m almost 60, I know I’ll never be able to stop taking this med. It does have powerful curative value in terms of alleviating symptoms of panic and fear. But even with the meds, I still only leave the house when ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Groceries, doctor visits and sometimes Mass. I do regret ever taking benzos. I was 19 when I was first prescribed a benzo. It was valium. But I didn’t start taking them regularly, every day until I was in my late 20s.

    My psychiatrist told me he’s decreasing my dose because of the research linking Alzheimers disease with benzo meds. I’m grateful he’s so on top of the most recent studies and research but I think we both know I may never be able to fully stop this med.

    My advice for those who are new to these types of meds is stop taking them before you cant. My memory has been affected seriously. My children are 24, 27 and 28. In conversation with them, I often hear ” Mom, you already told me that.” Or “Mom, can’t you remember that?” It’s devastating to have your children point out that you are not as sharp as you once were. I’m definitely not the intelligent, articulate person who raised them.
    I will say that I’m a talented clothing designer and it’s often very difficult to become inspired or to remember techniques I learned a long time ago.

    This research is eye opening and relevant. IN My community, Most People MY Age AND Younger Are On Benzos and/ Or pain meds. It’s the norm for the medical community here and I also live in a state where marijuana, sadly, is legal for recreationaL use as well as medical use. This throws another drug into an already over medicated society. I don’t use pot, but I’m in the minority where that’s concerned. I feel it would exacerbate any effects of the meds I do take and I don’t like things that cloud my judgment. I don’t drink either, which is almost a must if you take benzos. Alcohol and benzos can be a lethal combo.

    Thanks for allowing me to share my experience. I pray everyone lives long, healthy, enriched lives.

  5. Heather

    I was on Clonazapam for almost 2 years, 20 weeks of which were my determined attempt to get off that entangling drug, using the Ashton Method. Anxiety is better than Benzos. I’m worried about my brain. I hate the fact that I ever took a pill.

    • Holly

      This study about benzos and altzheimers has been debunked.

      • Lisa

        What is your statement based on? Just wondering because I take Klon and am concerned. Hope you are correct.

      • Eve
        Long Island, NY

        You say it has been debunked. How, exactly, do you know that? I would love to know because my pseudo-psych, an N.P. who is evil always tells me about the bad part of Klonopin, saying I will get dementia and Alzheimers.

  6. Cynthia

    Doctors who prescribe these drugs for anything except emergency situations are HYPOCRITES!

  7. Mikey

    I just found out about this link. I ad no idea and had been prescribed Klonipin for about a decade or so. Only 1mg for sleep, but still….why the hell are doctors allowed to prescribe these things for long term use in the first place? As for stopping, I’m in the process. I’ve been doing okay with a new sleep hygene routine as follows, 1) music, song “weightless” which is relaxing and boring, 2) reading, I try to read something really boring 3) Same time every night 4) I take a benydril before reading which promotes sleepiness, 5) lights out. The whole process takes somewhere between 25-45 minutes. A shrink helped me with it. So far I’m sleeping a solid 7 hrs most nights. I tried to go to 1/4 pill but I couldn’t get but 3 hrs. So another month of 1/2 a pill for me.

  8. TB
    Pittsburgh, PA

    Hello. I just learned yesterday of the “alleged” link between benzo’s and Alzheimer’s. After reading a bit about it, I have a question – Is the link only for the older population? I’m in my 40’s and have been on clonazepam for nearly 20 years. For 18 of those years I took 2 mg per day. Last year my doctor pushed it to 4 mg per day. Am I at risk? For me, the risk of going back to severe OCD and anxiety is well worth the risk unless there’s another medication out there. As with the other posters, my memory is terrible. I can watch the same episode of a TV show or movie again and again and not realize that I’ve seen it. I used to struggle with words, but that’s dissipated recently. The really sad thing is that I have next to no memory of my entire life, even before the benzo’s …

    • Mikey

      “…..worth the risk..”
      Really? Alzheimer’s is better than OCD? OCD must be really bad then….I’ve been to my share of assisted living homes on visit and can assure you…..there’s no disease on the planet than Alzheimers, they treat them poor folks like a dirty slab of meat. Lets both hope the study was messed up. I’m sure neither of us wants Alz!

  9. lj

    started taking Xanax in 1991 as severe anxiety was a prevalent side effect of Prozac..and although Prozac dealt better with my depression than any other antidepressants. .. increased anxiety in my case was and is still a side effect for which I take very small doses of 0.25, 1 or 2 doses a day, as needed only. recently my dr decided I should “deal with my fears” with a less than desirable therapist due to Xanax induced dementia..

    It is important to know that at the time he made this decision, I also had been taking the fullest doses of pristiq and fullest doses of wellbutrin together. I am still on lamictal and tapering off of Xanax. he took me off of wellbutrin and pristiq on an 8 day washout after being on it for about 3 years, while he introduced brintellix during the latter part of my washout from pristiq and wellbutrin. I still take the smallest amounts of Xanax, I have always had a healthy respect for any addictive meds. Since I was taken off of wellbutrin and pristiq everyone noticed how good my memory was (and is) and how alert and clear minded. I could tell a difference immediately, and after going through a rough withdrawal from these two meds.. so I and my family and friends are of the belief that what had been screwing up my memory and associated dementia behavior must have been exclusively related to wellbutrin and pristiq.

    I also had a friend whom I hadn’t seen in two years in a conversation we had about the past, tell me what a great memory I had.. yeah I still forget things, but I am 61 and have had a lot of things to remember so..

    I guess also like the previous person commented on this issue earlier in this blog, I have always wondered if in fact memory can be clouded from many different things including the disorders I have without meds.. severe panic, severe clinical depression, ptsd, numerous physically violent abuses (previous relationship) above average levels of radon in my home, cigarettes, previous eating disorder,diet coke, gmo food, tap water etc…..and that Xanax is not the issue.

    note* I have previously tried eft, self hypnosis, herb teas, relaxation therapy, biofeedback, yoga, walking, and while these things have helped, they do not work unless the Xanax is also part of the mix.. what’s next to try? pot??? in the past it did not, and it is illegal in my state…….I guess I can revert back to agoraphobia..awesome.

  10. K

    My withdrawal from clonazepam remains a very raw and very painful matter for me, and very difficult to revisit.

    In the end, I can say withdrawing was right for me.

    I find myself wanting to be of help, if I can, to others who are curious about withdrawing; are contemplating or planning to; or are already in the process.

    Here’s my best attempt at that:

    If I were approaching withdrawal today, if at all possible I would do A LOT of my own research BEFORE speaking with my doctor, including on: preparing for, starting, and sustaining the withdrawal process; planning and deciding on slow, sane, and safe dose reductions; dosing options e.g., pills, compounded liquid, water dosing; the many withdrawal symptoms; coping skills and strategies for withdrawal symptoms; self-care and patience; other people’s stories and experiences with clonazepam and withdrawing from it, though staying to those that are mostly frank though not in the end pessimistic; taking a clear look at my support system, i.e., can I rely on it or not for support during withdrawal, can I beef it up or not if its not adequate to support me during withdrawal, etc., and I would spend a lot of time getting familiar with the various benzodiazepine withdrawal forums on the internet–again sticking to those that are mostly frank though not in the end pessimistic (It seems for some people these peer-to-peer forums are their main support, because support just isn’t available otherwise; a lot of information, encouragement, etc., might be gained from other’s stories).

    AND, if at all possible, I would research one or two other doctors/clinics that are willing and able to help people withdraw from benzodiazepines wisely, humanely, safely, and at a pace they can tolerate. (Sadly, finding such a doctor/clinic would probably not be easy. )

    NEXT I would give myself time to think about how I would approach and manage the withdrawal if I had to manage it with very little support or well meaning but fundamentally erred support from my doctor and support system (and family and friends, etc.).

    THEN… I would be prepared to the best of my ability to broach the topic of withdrawal with my doctor and navigate whatever conversations might ensue.

  11. Dean W.
    Mesquite, T

    I have been taking temazepam 15 mg., for sleep aid. I read your article about memory loss. I have been steadily getting memory loss. I have trouble thinking of names, things, places, etc.
    and have now decided not to use this any more. I have been off of it at times for maybe a week, due to the VA not getting them to me on time. The only drawback was not sleeping thru the nite, waking up several times. I have some xanax (generic) .5 mg that I can take half a pill and sleep well. Can memory come back? I hope so. I enjoy your column in the Dallas Morning News. Keep it up! Thank you

  12. Greg B.
    Houston, TX

    Being chronically stressed and anxious is also associated with neural inflammation, so this association between Alzheimer’s and benzodiazepines might actually reflect association with chronic anxiety or the environmental factors associated with chronic anxiety rather than due to the drug itself. Did these studies adequate control for that confounder? If not, how might a future study address this issue?

  13. Cindy M. B.

    I’ve worked in psychiatric wards (the public sector) for 25+ years and can tell you FOR A FACT that when at-risk people come in with various problems that could still be ameliorated or even cured, LITTLE TO NO COUNSELING is offered to help them do that. Instead, it’s MEDS, MEDS, MEDS. And when (as I’ve heard countless times) the person complains of side effects (“My head feels really tight, like there’s a band around it.” “My body feels all electric and zappy,” “My legs feel like lead, I can’t think straight, my vision is blurry…” (etc.!)) — the doctors and nurses simply pat them on the head, minimizing or dismissing the complaint entirely. And if the person’s too insistent, they’re usually given a “PRN,” usually a benzo like Ativan, to quiet them down! And it usually works, ’cause by then the person’s too snowed to even complain.

    As a lower-level linestaff, I can’t possibly be caught disparaging the “company line” so of course I don’t. Creative personal-power counseling, in addition to ordinary patient education re use of various tools and concepts to gain control, would make all the difference in some of these patients. But there is no money for enough well-trained staff to do that counseling. Instead, the only emphasis is on keeping the unit safe, i.e., reducing any possible financial liability. So that’s what we have in the mental health system. Of course there are people who really do need, and benefit from, certain drugs. But overall, the mental health system does fervently, and continuously, push meds over all other interventions, and chide and punish those who resist. Why? Because drugs are so much cheaper and easier than anything else!

    • Bonnie

      thank you so much for your comment. A few months ago I was transferred from a private facility in London to a mental health facility in Florida. While the facility was clean and patients seemed satisfied with the care they received, I was quite upset. I couldn’t believe that I would just sit around waiting for the next med, food, ‘therapy’ time. Therapy didn’t consist of anything that I found helpful (I was depressed amongst a lot of dual diagnosed patients). After a few days of asking for help (besides meds), I finally gave up, shut up and did my time…..a long 11 days of just sitting around.

    • Mikey

      Thanks for your comments! Maybe you’ve found a profitable niche… perhaps think about a way to introduce counseling into one of the homes you work in. Most people would pay if they felt they were in a crisis I’m sure. Or just sell the idea to the boss for brownie points :)

  14. Penny

    I’m 73. I have been taking lorazepam for 25 years. Have an adrenal tumor which affects my BP, pulse rate, and regularity of heart beat. Surgery is not an option for me due to clotting factor abnormalities. This information has set my anxieties off and scared me intensely especially both from the insurer deciding what I can have or limiting the amount. So far I am doing fine and have a good cognitive ability.

  15. Marty

    I was on 1mg of clonzapam for three years. It took about 6 months to get off. I tapered very slowly and still got nearly all the withdrawal problems mentioned above. It was terrible. When I started taking the drug I immediately could not remember names or words I wanted to use. Four years after withdrawal I still can’t remember.

  16. JimP
    Winchester, VA

    My wife’s Dr. kept prescribing her clonazepam despite requests to taper her off of it. It was 1.0 mg/day for a sleep disorder, but she had been taking it for probably 10 years. With all the warnings about the danger of going “cold turkey”, we wanted to find some guidelines for tapering off of it.

    There is a college professor in England that started a benzodiazepine withdrawal clinic who has published her recommendations. Prof. Ashton tells you to see your doctor for assistance, but my wife’s Dr. wouldn’t help her get off. So we looked at http://www.benzo.org.uk for:

    (aka The Ashton Manual)

    • Medical research information from a benzodiazepine withdrawal clinic

    Professor C Heather Ashton DM, FRCP
    Revised August 2002

    My wife tapered off her clonazepam over a period of almost two years and did not suffer withdrawal symptoms. She is clonazepam-free and no longer suffers from the sleep disorder.

  17. Penny H.
    United States

    Several years ago I managed to get myself off of clonazepam. Then in 2013 I went to my rheumatologist for increased arthritis pain and he prescribed it again, along with diclofenac. I refused to start the clonazepam again but early in 2014 he tried one more time (I still didn’t start it up again). I’d go to another doctor but he is the only rheumatologist in the area.

  18. Torrence Buttermore
    Boardman, Ohio

    The woman in question? The article didn’t say how much she was taking. In other words what mg or grams was she taking? That to me is very important! I have been on Cloazepam for many years and, at 78 years of age, do not have any signs yet of the mind problems discussed. My dosage is a 0.5 mg tablet that I take once a day, and might take a quarter of a tablet more if needed. My doctor said to me at the dosage I’m taking , I’m not in any way addicted to it. Any thoughts?

    • Mikey

      I’m in a similar situation. Although my prescribed dose has been 1 mg for a decade or more (for sleep) When I tried to stop, I could not sleep for an entire month….well maybe I got an hour here and an hour there, but I was very sleep deprived(but no other symptoms). It was terrible!

      I had to go back on them to get sleep. I’ve been on 1/2 a pill now for about 2 weeks or so …tried 1/4 but that ain’t working yet. I figure another couple of weeks. But at your age, I can’t say I’d quit or not….if you’re mind is showing cognitive decline, maybe I’d consider it….I’m in my 50’s so it behooves me to quit before I have to live my last 30 in a nursing home.

  19. Stephen P
    United States

    I am a 63 year old man who is very active physically and with the help of a low dose of Clonazepam (0.5 mg) combined with a number of other drugs (lamictal, lithium, seroquel, and abilify), I have my late occuring (1 year ago), Bipolar 1 disease firmly under control and am able to work as a home care nurse taking care of a ventilator patient. For me these drugs have been a Godsend. It is quite concerning to hear that Clonazeapam might be indicated in dementia, but continuing with it is a risk I’m willing to take as the mania and depression I experienced were profoundly awful. I am happy that I now feel normal, with normal ups and downs that I can live with. The only side effects I have experienced are some loss of short term memory and trouble finding appropriate words at times. Once again I will take this over the nightmare of Bipolar symptoms any day. I just pray that side effects from any of these drugs will not someday be debilitating.
    I ask that you would let me know when or if you address this missive on your show. I get the podcast, but don’t always have time to listen to them all.
    Thanks for all you do,
    Stephen Park

  20. Sharon Smith
    Tuscaloosa, AL

    How do you find a professional who is trained in helping someone stop taking clonazepam after being on it for 25 years? I attempted the method advised by my neuro but could not tolerate the withdrawal.

  21. lyn

    I am now 3 weeks post ER and hospital admission for 4 days. I passed out and hit my head on the corner of a wooden kitchen bar stool. I was unconscious for ? minutes. I am barely functioning, and have homecare help for now. This is due to the fact that, last June, I started to drop a ‘Z’ (zopiclone for sleeping) drug without a gradual enough taper (on my own), then the doctors got involved, and they don’t know how to do it either, making things worse by switching me to clonazepam at one time (a disaster)…..I also have Parkinsonism, and apparently the dopaminergic medicines make us particularly sensitive to benzo’s. Add in the SSRI I’ve now got to ‘help’ with withdrawal too. I’d like to know how many people are in nursing homes because of benzo’s. I just got David Healy’s book Pharmageddon, and it is very insightful.
    People just cant imagine the torture these things can do during withdrawal.

  22. Donna Johnson
    St. Louis, MO.

    My Psychiatrist and I have decided to take a proactive approach to my getting off Clonazepam completely. We are therefore decreasing the drug very gradually tapering the dose, recognizing the often severe side effects associated with such drugs. The taper may take months, or upwards to a year. Given that Ambien has only been approved for a 90 day supply in any given year for people 65y/o or older, we decreased that drug very gradually, too, but only took 4 months, with no ill side effects except a 5 day hospital stay for a severe Pneumonia in December. I am now 64y/o, taking 1.5mg at bedtime. This proactive approach will hopefully avoid the severe side effect of Benzodiazepine withdrawal, recognizing Insurers may take same approach next year, or even sooner given this new finding, given I will be 65y/o in June. This must be implemented by a Physician learned in this severe side effect. Many Primary Care Physicians have been prescribing for years, and may not be aware of need for very gradual withdrawal. therefore leaving patients in a lurch if Insurers go the road of Benzodiazepines like the Ambien, and associated drugs listed, and leaving patients in severe withdrawal if Insurers only approving a certain limited quantity in any year after age 65y/o. Insurers are not Physicians, and certainly not Psychiatrists. I’am very concerned, and having taken this drug for3-4 years. We tried to get newer drug Intermezzio which comes in .125mg dose, but Insurer does not approve this drug. Psychiatrist recommended cutting the .05 dose in quarters, but this does not help as very difficult to score in quarters, even with good scoring properties. I’am putting this out there as having been a Psychiatric RN for30+ years before retirement, I am more learned than most in this need for very gradual decrease in Clonazepine, and similar Benzodiazepine drugs.

  23. Joan janisch

    Wouldn’t the amount of the drugs taken make a difference? That is never mentioned. One pill consumed during a high anxiety period as opposed to 4 or 6 during the course of a day?

  24. MM

    When my husband, age 54, suddenly died of a heart attack, I was in total shock. I was completely anxiety ridden after his unexpected sudden loss. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was living in a nightmare situation. I finally called my physician and thank goodness was prescribed alprazolam
    0.25mg, it was truly a life saver for me. Finally, I was able to sleep, to function at work and be at peace. As time passed and the emotional healing completed its lengthy cycle, I ceased taking alprazolam without adverse consequences. I will always be thankful for my physician’s assistance during this traumatic event in my life.

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