a confused or forgetful older senior woman

Millions of people take benzodiazepines every day. Such drugs are variously described as anti-anxiety agents, sedatives, hypnotics (to aid sleep) or benzos for short. At last count about five million Americans got 27 million prescriptions for alprazolam (Xanax). Over four million people received more than 20 million prescriptions for clonazepam (Klonopin). More than two million people filled nearly nine million prescriptions for diazepam (Valium). That does not include lorazepam (Ativan) or temazepam (Restoril). This reader wants to know if clonazepam can trigger dementia? Such a question might not be as far-fetched as you might think.

Benzodiazepines and Dementia?

Q. Clonazepam has affected my memory. Some days I feel like I have amnesia.

I am working with a doctor now to get me off of this drug. A psychiatrist I talked to said it can cause dementia. That scares me. Do you have any suggestions to avoid withdrawal?

A. The connection between benzodiazepines such as alprazolam, clonazepam or diazepam and dementia remains controversial. A study from Korea involving more than 250,000 people concluded that sedatives and sleeping pills significantly increased the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (PLOS One, Sept. 24, 2018).

Older people may be especially vulnerable to harm from benzos. In addition to affecting memory and cognition, such drugs may increase the risk of falls. These drugs are frequently included in lists of medications that are potentially inappropriate for older adults (Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, Jan-Feb. 2017).

Others Are Worried:

This reader is not the only person who has been warned by a physician.

Rose in Pittsburgh, PA has also been scared by her doctor:

“I have been taking clonazepam for 25 years. I take it at night to get to sleep. I had to go to a new psych doctor as mine retired. At my first visit she automatically wanted me to stop taking clonazepam. She said it could cause dementia.

“I said I would if she could give me something to help me sleep that works. She prescribed Vistaril (hydroxyzine). It does not work. 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 on the clonazepam. I’ll take my chances with dementia. My memory is already shot. I am only 55 years old.”

You can learn more about clonazepam (and other benzos) and dementia at this link.

Never Stop Clonazepam Suddenly!

Getting off clonazepam or any benzodiazepine should be very gradual. Our free eGuide to Psychological Side Effects has detailed information about discontinuing clonazepam or other benzos. It is available at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com in our Guide section.

It is imperative that anyone who has been on a benzodiazepine for more than a few weeks NEVER stop taking the drug without careful medical supervision. The withdrawal process can take months or longer. It must be very gradual. Here is a link to some symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal.

Share your own benzo story in the comment section below.

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  1. Dotty
    Texas
    Reply

    Dotty December 5,2018
    I am 80 years old and have no trouble going to sleep but wake up at 2:30 ready to start the day. My doctor prescribed 1mg of clonazepam which I take 1/2 tablet at that time and go back to sleep in about 30 minutes. This has workedfor me for about a year.

  2. Lois
    FL
    Reply

    I’ve been wondering for some time about which came first, the insomnia or early possible dementia. I’m currently taking Temazepam 15 mg for sleep. I am Apoe 3/4, so at increased risk of Alzheimer’s. I’m doing the best I can working on prevention with diet, exercise and some supplements (which I also question). At age 70, I feel great and have some issues of coming up with names or word searching, but I haven’t noticed too many other changes. I find that if I don’t sleep well at night, I feel lousy, almost sick. I’ll continue on this med and monitor my mental status.

  3. Joan
    Cheshire
    Reply

    I was given very good advice by a Docter about 30 years ago when I went to him for something to help me sleep.
    Simply he told me although he could prescribe many drugs he felt that once you start them they become a habit for life and are really hard to come off also once your body gets used to medically induced sleep natural sleep is far more difficult.
    Now at the time I was not impressed but took on board the advice I had a few restless sleepless nights and soon got back to normal, he advised me first and foremost to work out why I was not sleeping in my case I was worried about a work problem also sitting up too late mulling things over and drinking too much caffeine once I cut back on the tea and sorted the work problem I returned to normal but he said lots of things affect sleep like diet uncomfortable room temperature lack of certain minerals and vitamins naps in the day too much mental stimulation late at night so my advice do not start taking them no matter how tempted and when you stop these drugs expect a few sleepless nights so plan it when you can rest during the day
    As regards dementia I wonder about this as I know plenty of people who were on them for years and never developed it and we all become forgetful at times and the brain is a muscle so if it is not used it doesn’t function as well nowadays everyone over 60 is suspected of it if they forget a word or something else equally as innocent Drs seem obsessed with it yet they themselves, unless they have your chart in front of you, are very forgetful LOL

  4. Susan
    Florida
    Reply

    Please explain to your readers that addiction and physical dependence are two very different things. Just because a person has to taper slowly off of a benzo does NOT mean they are “addicted.” They simply have a physical dependence on the med. Someone “addicted” to a med seeks more and more of it, will lie and steal to get it, tries to get multiple prescriptions from many doctors, and their life revolves around getting and taking the drug. Most medications should not be stopped abruptly. Antidepressants are notoriously hard to get off of but this doesn’t mean the person taking them is an “addict.” Addiction is an all-consuming obsession, like alcoholism.

    It is a far cry from someone who has to taper off a benzo carefully over a long period of time. I have taken Ativan for 20 years, and like another person said, it has saved my life many times. I take 2 mg at bedtime with 100 mg of trazodone, and I sleep like a baby without waking. No morning hangover, no side-effects. I’m 74 years old, and I will also take my chances with Ativan. I feel very alert ,and my memory is good. Everything I’ve ever read to take or to do to prevent dementia I do, so maybe these efforts will counteract any memory problems from Ativan.

  5. Fred
    NH
    Reply

    You did not mention Ambien (zolpidem), considered a close chemical relative to the benzos and most prescribed med in U.S., I believe. The several-hour hangover after taking even 5 mg eventually disappears but I’ve noticed, after taking 10 mg for a decade, that at 70 I don’t feel quite as sharp, especially with word finding, as in most of my life.

  6. R D M
    Oregon state
    Reply

    I have been using lorazepam for many years. It is a good drug if used correctly, and now all of a sudden it’s a “bad” drug . I think its benefits outwiegh its so-called negatives. Sleep is very important to me at this age. I use .5 ml with two gabapentin and rarely have trouble getting wonderful sleep. Now the V. A. is against perscibing it for my horrible anxiety. I have tried many different drugs that do not work and have horrible side effects, weight gain of up to 25 lbs., strong sexual side effects, and lack of sleep, to name a few. Lorazepam is a great drug, and I do not want to have my quality of life changed for the negative because of bad policy. There are so many bad drugs out there that kill people. Why is this one being targeted?

    Until their is more proof, we need to let people make their own decisions and choices about which “poison” to use.

  7. James
    Spartanburg, SC
    Reply

    I too take Klonopin [clonazepam] for anxiety. At one time I was taking 3mg per day. My doctor at the time reduced the dosage to 2mg per day.

    I have a new doctor and he told me of the risk of dementia. He wants me off this all together. He reduced my dosage to 1mg per day and added 2.5mg of Olanzapine to help with the withdrawal symptoms. This has worked out fine.

    He recently reduced my dosage to 1/2mg but gave me enough to take twice a day if needed. I tried this for 2 weeks and had to go back to 1mg per day. The withdrawal symptoms made me very irritable. I haven’t told my doctor yet. It took just 2 days to feel like my old self which was greatly appreciated by those around me.

    I do have lapses in memory. Sometimes I can’t complete a sentence (brain farts) or can’t think of a word. This is very exasperating but better than the irritability. I plan on telling my doctor and maybe he can do something else to combat the withdrawals.

  8. Ellen D.
    CT
    Reply

    It’s a very dangerous, slippery slope. It has taken me a year to cut down to 1mg at night from 2 for sleep/anxiety. My doc tried to switch me to another med in the same group without weaning off – Horrific results. . . It gave me an insight as to what drug addiction is- as I was driving with my head sideways to the local pharmacy. . .

  9. Ray
    Minn
    Reply

    I have been taking Ativan for 20 years, first for anxiety attacks and now for sleeping. I take .5 to 1 mg nightly to sleep. It has been a lifesaver and I can’t imagine my life without it. I believe I may have killed myself without it. I’m 75 and I’m aware of the dangers of over use and have never abused it. I sleep like a baby with it and not good without it. I’ll take my chances. So far it’s had no side effects.

    • Barbara
      New York
      Reply

      Me too! Exactly the same and I’m in my 70’s as well.

  10. Mark
    Florida/Space Coast
    Reply

    I’m 68, with treatment resistant bipolar, of which difficulty sleeping is part of the illness. I’ve been on Klonopin for 11 or 12 years. I’ve tapered down to .5 mg from 2 mg over the past few years. If I increase it, in order to sleep more soundly, the drug makes me depressed, irritable and agitated. It’s also possible that it’s contributing to long standing erectile dysfunction. I’m seeing a new primary who has a specialty in sleep disorders. I know I have mild apnea which didn’t respond to CPAP. My psychiatrist speculates that I might have some other neurological problem.

    All I know is that I’m addicted to Klonopin and it’s likely a contributing factor to various health issues that didn’t exist before I started it.

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