Mirroring national trends, elderly Americans are beginning to use more addictive prescription drugs. In a report by the New York Times, the number of prescriptions for benzodiazepines, a class of anxiety drugs which includes Xanax and opioids have markedly increased in the last couple decades. Not only do these addictive drugs have serious side effects, they can be deadly to the user, sometimes even when taken as prescribed.
According to the newspaper, the number of benzodiazepine prescriptions for Americans over the age of 65 increased 8.7 percent between 2003 and 2010, the year with the most recent data available. A 2008 study indicated that about 9 percent of adults between 65 and 80 took one of these anti-anxiety drugs. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) paints an even more ominous picture of the problem – the number of deaths caused by benzodiazepines in Americans over the age of 65 rose from 63 deaths in 1999 to 431 in 2015. In 1999, opioids were a contributing cause of 29 percent of these deaths. A mere fifteen years later, opioid drugs now contribute to two-thirds of deaths caused by benzodiazepines.
According to doctors, these two highly-addictive drugs can potentiate each other, making them both more effective and deadlier when taken together. In addition to the risk of death, these drugs also have serious side effects that are even more pronounced in the elderly. Benzodiazepine drugs can cause dizziness and therefore are more likely to cause falls and fractures. Further, using these drugs for extended periods of times may increase the risk of cognitive decline and several diseases in the elderly. In one case reported by the New York Times, a nursing home resident became so weak that she could not stand for a long period of time, began having “panic attacks, extreme fatigue, and other health problems.” Her doctor then began a six-month process to “wean” her off the drugs, a physical withdrawal which included a “variety of debilitating symptoms.”
Surprisingly, this patient was taking her benzodiazepine – Klonopin, to be more specific – medication exactly as prescribed. Perhaps even more surprisingly, though is how almost all patients become addicted to these drugs. These anti-anxiety drugs are effective for short periods or sporadic use, but a person’s body will both become dependent and develop a tolerance at the same time. Therefore, when prescribed for long periods of time, many patients become dependent on a drug and then become even more dependent over time. Because research has shown that these drugs are not more effective than non-drug alternatives to treating anxiety, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or improving sleep quality, the increased risk of death and dependency not appear to be worth the benefit.