Are You Getting Hooked on Anxiety Medications?

If you’re older than 50, chances are good you’ll get a prescription someday for a medication to relieve anxiety or insomnia. Called benzodiazepines, these drugs are effective, but there are also problems associated with their use.

Approximately 5.2 percent of adults (ages 18 to 80) in the United States take benzodiazepines, according to a study published in February 2015 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. People on the older end of the spectrum are even more likely to use them — about 7.4 percent of people 51 to 64 and 8.7 percent of people 65 to 80. The unique medical needs of older people probably play a role in the higher rates of use, says Mark Olfson, MD, MPH, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City and one of the lead researchers on the study.

“The quality of sleep naturally declines as people age, and as a result, complaints of insomnia increase with age,” Dr. Olfson says. “Benzodiazepines offer prompt relief that requires little effort on the part of the prescribing physician.”

Older people are also more likely to experience emotionally stressful events like the loss of a spouse or another family member. They may seek benzodiazepines to deal with their depression and anxiety, says Michael Weaver, MD, professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and medical director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Research on Addiction at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

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