As people age, concerns about mental health issues like anxiety and dementia often grow.
A new study from Saint Louis University School of Medicine digs into these concerns, particularly focusing on the medications often prescribed for anxiety.
The findings could change how we think about the risks associated with these drugs and conditions.
Anxiety and Dementia: A Complicated Relationship
The study showed that for people aged 65 and over, a diagnosis of anxiety is linked to a higher chance of being diagnosed with dementia later on.
This adds to existing knowledge about anxiety’s harmful effects, which can include heart problems, diabetes, and depression among others.
With around five million Americans over 65 diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or related dementia as of 2014—a number expected to double by 2060—the study’s insights are increasingly vital.
The Role of Anxiety Medications
One of the most commonly prescribed medications for anxiety in older adults is benzodiazepine.
This drug is somewhat controversial because it has been associated with short-term memory problems, falls, and even fractures.
The Saint Louis University study found that using benzodiazepines was linked to a 28% increased risk of developing dementia.
However, the research had a surprising twist. When benzodiazepines were prescribed specifically for people who already had an anxiety disorder, the medication didn’t significantly raise the risk of dementia.
Still More Questions Than Answers
According to Jay A. Brieler, M.D., the paper’s first author, both anxiety and its treatments seem to play a role in the risk of developing dementia. However, it’s not yet clear how these factors might interact.
The study looked back at health records of over 72,000 patients from 2014 to 2021, tapping into a large database that captures a broad range of patient experiences, to draw its conclusions.
What makes these findings even more complex is the already known risks associated with benzodiazepines.
“As a clinician who frequently treats patients with anxiety disorders, recent studies suggesting benzodiazepine use could contribute to dementia were very concerning to me,” Brieler said.
The study helps to separate some of the intertwined effects of anxiety and its treatment but leaves some questions still unanswered.
Next Steps for Research
The researchers suggest that future studies should look at whether other types of anxiety medications also carry similar risks.
This is particularly relevant as the population ages and the number of people with both anxiety disorders and dementia is expected to grow.
The study adds a crucial layer of understanding to the intricate connections between anxiety, medication, and dementia.
While it doesn’t provide all the answers, it does provide guidance on potential risks and points the way for future research that can help us better understand these complex relationships.
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The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
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