Scientifically reviewed by Mario M. Dorostkar, MD.
Taking medication for anxiety or insomnia should never be a source of embarrassment. Doctors often write prescriptions as part of a larger treatment plan customized for your needs. However, it’s important to be aware of the short and long-term side effects of all your medications. For decades, researchers have warned that a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines — which treat anxiety and insomnia — may cause cognitive impairment (difficulty remembering, learning, or concentrating).
Now, thanks to a recent study published in Nature Neuroscience, there is concrete evidence that may explain why benzodiazepines cause cognitive issues and raise a patient’s risk of dementia.
What are benzodiazepines?
As explained by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF), benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that reduce symptoms of anxiety and insomnia. They are depressants and minor tranquilizers, and they work by slowing down “messages” that travel between the brain and the body.
Common benzodiazepines include:
- Diazepam (Ducene, Valium)
- Oxazepam (Alepam, Murelax)
- Nitrazepam (Alodorm, Mogadon)
- Temazepam (Euhypnos, Normison)
- Alprazolam (Xanax, Kalma, Alprax)
Understanding the Research
The idea that benzodiazepines negatively affect cognition is not a new one. A 2005 scientific review published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, found that these drugs did in fact cause cognitive dysfunction in a high number of patients, particularly when they were used long term. This outcome held true even when the researchers accounted for short-term side effects that subside (like drowsiness), and the fact that anxiety disorders themselves can cause cognitive issues.
And while patients’ memory and thinking skills improved after they stopped taking benzodiazepines, their cognitive function levels didn’t return entirely (as compared to pre-drug levels).
So why might these drugs impair our ability to think, remember, and learn? Because they harm our neurons, or brain cells. More specifically, as Mario M. Dorostkar, neuropathologist, and co-author of the Nature Neuroscience study tells Woman’s World, they affect the structure of dendritic spines.
To make sense of this, you’ll need to know the parts that make up a neuron. Dendrites are the “branches” of a brain cell. They connect to other neurons and help share information between cells. Dendritic spines are little bumps on the outside of a dendrite (think of them as the knots on a tree branch). They are the touch points that receive information.
Dr. Dorostkar says that during learning, these dendritic spines dissolve and reform. However, when a person takes a benzodiazepine, the drug interferes with the dissolution and reformation.
“A disturbance in this process leads to impaired memory and cognition,” he explains.
What does this mean for you?
Dorostkar notes that his team’s research applies to many benzodiazepines, but not all. As such, we cannot assume that all anxiety and insomnia drugs in this class increase a person’s risk of dementia. (We also cannot assume this because this is just one study of many.)
Still, it’s important information, particularly if you have a prescription for this type of drug. According to Harvard Health, these drugs are still commonly prescribed despite research revealing their negative side effects.
Another thing to keep in mind: This research does not mean that you should immediately stop taking a prescription. Doing so could be dangerous. Schedule an appointment with your doctor, who will be able to assess your symptoms and determine whether an alternative drug might be better for you (or a different treatment plan entirely), before taking any action.
If you’re worried about your present cognition, you too should talk to your doctor. You can also read these suggestions for workouts that may improve brain health and brain exercises to sharpen your memory.