Why Are 1 in 4 Seniors Taking Anxiety Meds?

By Dr. Joseph Mercola

Contributing writer for Wake Up World

Research conducted by two U.S. universities and the Department of Veterans Affairs suggests 1 in 4 older adults is now turning to pills to address anxiety and other health conditions, putting seniors at an increased risk of drug dependency and injury.

The news that 1 in 4 senior citizens is taking prescription medications for anxiety most likely comes as no surprise. After all, it’s rare to find an age group unaffected by anxiety these days.

Not only does the current research suggest more seniors are using antianxiety drugs, but it also asserts they are increasingly at risk of becoming drug-dependent, particularly when medications like Valium and Xanax are prescribed to address anxiety and sleep issues.1

Beyond the risk of dependency, long-term use of a particular class of drugs called benzodiazepines (also known as “benzos”) can raise your risk of broken hips, car crashes and falls. In my opinion, there are better, natural ways to treat anxiety than prescription drugs.

Many people effectively manage anxiety with the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT); I also will share other approaches I recommend for anxiety sufferers of all ages.

Researchers Evaluate Use of Benzodiazepine Drugs Among Seniors

Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine by medical professionals from the University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) evaluated benzodiazepine use by low-income senior citizens who participated in a Pennsylvania program designed to help with drug costs.2

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse notes benzodiazepine drugs are commonly abused and asserts about one-third of opioid overdoses also involve benzodiazepines.3

Given the fact most older adults who use benzodiazepines obtain their prescriptions from a primary care physician or other non-psychiatrist practitioner, the research zeroed in on only those seniors receiving prescriptions from someone other than a psychiatrist.4

The research centered on analyzing the medication-use patterns of 576 older adults who received their first benzodiazepine prescription between 2008 and 2016.

Notably, the team discovered 152 seniors continued to hold a current or recent prescription for the drugs one year later. As such, they concluded 1 in 4 seniors is consistently taking medications such as Valium or Xanax to address anxiety and/or sleep issues. Additional findings include:5,6

  • As compared to minorities, Caucasian patients were four times more likely to have moved toward long-term use.
  • Seniors whose initial prescriptions were written for the largest number of pills were found to be more likely to become long-term users of benzodiazepine drugs.
  • For every 10 additional days of medication prescribed, a patient’s risk of long-term use nearly doubled over the next year.
  • As compared to short-term users, seniors who took benzodiazepines long term were not any more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression.
  • On average, the participants were 78 years old when they received their first benzodiazepine prescription, even though the drugs are generally not recommended for adults over age 65.
  • Very few of the seniors had received psychiatric, psychological or psychosocial care in the previous two years.

What Are Benzodiazepines and Who Uses Them?

As a class of psychoactive drugs known for their tranquilizing effects, benzodiazepines enhance the effect of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain, making it useful for treating the following medical conditions:7

  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Seizure control

You may be given a benzodiazepine drug prior to the administration of a presurgery anesthetic or to induce amnesia in conjunction with uncomfortable medical procedures. Benzodiazepine drugs are known for their anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, muscle-relaxing, sedative and sleep-inducing properties.

A few of the brand name drugs within the benzodiazepine class that are commonly prescribed to seniors include Ativan, Halcion, Klonopin, Valium, Versed and Xanax. As mentioned, these drugs are easily abused.

In the video below, presented by the nonprofit advocacy group Benzodiazepine Information Coalition8 in honor of World Benzo Awareness Day 2018, former users of these medications share how they came to realize the negative effects prescribed benzodiazepines had on their lives.

Health Care Providers Lack Education About the Risks Associated With Benzodiazepine Drugs

The researchers say their findings point to a lack of education about the potential negative effects of these drugs, as well as a need to ensure both health care providers and the public are aware of the risks associated with taking them.9 About the results, lead study author Dr. Lauren Gerlach, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, stated:10

“This shows we need to help providers start with the end in mind when prescribing a benzodiazepine, by beginning with a short-duration prescription and engag[ing] patients in discussions of when to re-evaluate their symptoms and begin tapering the patient off [the medication].

We also need to educate providers about effective nonpharmaceutical treatment alternatives, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, for these patients.”

Dr. Brian Keefe, a psychiatrist and medical director at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, who was not involved in the research, affirms the study as a much-needed reminder for doctors everywhere. “Clinicians, including psychiatrists, continue to prescribe benzodiazepines to this [older] population at an alarming rate.”

They do so, he notes, despite the fact, “multiple studies over many years now have consistently demonstrated an elevated risk of falls, and falls with fracture in seniors who take these medications.”11 Another concern raised by the researchers relates to the improper application of benzodiazepine drugs.12

They noted long-term users were more likely to report sleep problems despite the fact benzodiazepines are not recommended for long-term use as sleep aids. To the contrary, these drugs may actually worsen sleep the longer they’re used.

Dr. Harshal Kirane, psychiatrist and director of addiction services at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City, suggests benzodiazepine overuse is “a silent epidemic.” He believes the research “underscores a persistent reliance on narcotic medications for resolution of symptoms, such as insomnia, that can be improved by numerous other healthier options.”13

As such, Kirane asserts physicians must do more to help guide patients toward safer, nonpharmaceutical solutions for sleeplessness and other common complaints. Similarly, senior study author Dr. David Oslin, professor of psychiatry with Penn Behavioral Health and staff physician with the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, stated:14

“This study provides strong evidence that the expectations set out by a provider when they first write a new prescription carry forward over time. When a physician writes [a prescription] for 30 days of a benzodiazepine, the message to the patient is to take the medication daily and for a long time.

This expectancy translates into chronic use, which, in the long run, translates into greater risks like falls, cognitive impairment and worse sleep.”

Got Anxiety? EFT Can Produce Rapid Results

While prescription drugs are often thought to be the main remedy for anxiety, there are many natural alternatives. One of the best “treatments,” in my opinion, is EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques). It’s easy to use and can produce rapid and long-lasting results.

Energy psychology techniques such as EFT can be very effective in helping you reprogram your body’s reactions to the common, unavoidable stressors of everyday life that fuel anxiety.

Having been around since the 1990s, EFT has been described as acupuncture without needles. This is so because both modalities are based on the premise that vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT combines fingertip tapping over particular meridian points in your body with verbal affirmations you speak to yourself out loud.

The technique is so simple and it can be performed nearly anytime and anywhere. You can easily perform EFT on your own, or for more complex issues, you may want to seek the help of a qualified EFT therapist. Having had an EFT specialist on staff at my natural health clinic, I can testify to the positive effects this therapy has had on countless individuals, myself included.

EFT works wonderfully to ease anxiety and insomnia — two nagging concerns affecting many seniors — as well as a variety of other issues related to emotional and physical health for people of all ages. Based on my experience, EFT is, without a doubt, the most effective clinical strategy I have ever used for anxiety. It is most certainly better and safer for you than pharmaceutical drugs.

In the video above, EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to use tapping to relieve stress and anxiety. If, on the other hand, sleeplessness is a bigger concern for you, check out “Julie Schiffman Discusses Tapping for Insomnia.”

The researchers suggested cognitive behavioral therapy as an alternative to prescription drugs, and this can be used in conjunction with EFT in addressing anxiety.

Keep in mind that talking about anxiety does not necessarily relieve the bodily effects associated with it. EFT addresses both your body and your mind, making it, in my opinion, an important adjunct to, or in some cases a replacement for, traditional talk therapy.

Consider Antianxiety Drugs Only as a Last Resort

Sadly, as validated by the current research, many primary care doctors are quick to prescribe benzodiazepines to older adults as a first line of treatment for anxiety disorders.

In many cases, drugs may be the only option offered. Because some seniors have been trained up under the notion of “doctor knows best,” they may be more likely to accept a prescription medication than to investigate alternative solutions.

After all, it likely seems easier to swallow a pill than to change one’s habits and thoughts, especially at older ages. That said, it’s vitally important for caregivers and family members to become educated about the dangerous side effects of antianxiety drugs like benzodiazepines and to advocate for their loved ones.

Given the potentially grave consequences, it’s up to these folks to investigate the options and direct their senior to healthier, safer nondrug alternatives. In case you are not yet convinced benzodiazepines are dangerous, consider a 2014 study published in BMJ suggesting use of these drugs puts you at a 50 percent greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The study authors stated:15

“Benzodiazepine use is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The stronger association observed for long-term exposures reinforces the suspicion of a possible direct association, even if benzodiazepine use might also be an early marker of a condition associated with an increased risk of dementia.

Unwarranted long-term use of these drugs should be considered as a public health concern.”

Another body of research suggests benzodiazepines and other hypnotic drugs are associated with a fourfold increase in all-cause mortality and a 35 percent greater risk of cancer among those prescribed higher doses.16 Once you start, getting off these drugs can also be challenging. The difficulty increases the longer you take them.

“Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome”17 is characterized by anxiety, concentration problems, hand tremors, headaches, irritability, muscular pain, nausea, palpitations, panic attacks, perceptual changes and sleep disturbance, among other troubling effects. Tapering off from higher doses can also trigger psychotic reactions and seizures.

As you can see, upon discontinuing them, these drugs have the potential to trigger side effects that are the same as the original symptoms they were attempting to address. Rather than deal with the uncomfortable after effects, it seems far wiser to dig into the root causes of your anxiety and to consider nondrug options first.

Try These Nondrug Options for Dealing With Anxiety

As with most chronic health issues, you will need to take a holistic approach to resolving anxiety. From the onset, you’d be wise to evaluate the following areas to ensure you are taking care of your body and mind at a foundational level. For starters, you may consider:

Addressing stressful people and situations — A common cause of anxiety relates to stressful people and situations. While this area can be challenging to address, you won’t regret any steps you take to reduce your anxiety levels by limiting your exposure to people and situations that “push you over the edge” emotionally.
Breathing properly — While it may sound funny to suggest breathing as a solution, you’d be surprised how many people breathe in such a way as to put their health in jeopardy.

Most stress-relief methods tend to focus on taking big, deep breaths, but this is actually the opposite of what you should do. For helpful tips, check out my article “Breathing Techniques for Greater Health and Fitness.”

Engaging in regular exercise — Some of my favorite forms of exercise include high-intensity interval training, stretching, yoga, walking and weight training. The four-minute Nitric Oxide Dump workout is particularly beneficial for boosting your health and sense of well-being.
Getting the right nutrition — Lowering your intake of gluten, processed foods and sugar is recommended for people of all ages and levels of health, and most especially for anyone suffering from anxiety.

Your body needs healthy (preferably grass fed, organic) food to function optimally. Some of the top antianxiety foods include blueberries, dark chocolate, fermented foods, leafy greens and turmeric.

Optimizing your gut health — A healthy gut is vital to your overall health. If you have a sluggish or overactive digestive system, your immune system is going to be negatively affected. To ensure your body has the right balance of healthy gut flora, get more fiber into your diet and consider taking a daily probiotic supplement.

Tackling common nutrient deficiencies — Even if you try to eat healthy, chances are you may have a hidden nutrient deficiency that is interfering with your health.

You may want to check your diet for deficiencies in key nutrients like animal-based omega-3s, magnesium and vitamin D. For more guidance in this area, review my article on “The Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies.”

In addition, since many seniors are tied to their TVs, tablets and other electronic gadgets and may not understand the implications of electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure, it’s important to become educated.

For now, be advised excessive free radicals triggered by low-frequency microwave exposure from wireless technologies have been linked to anxiety, depression, memory changes and sleep disturbances, as well as a number of other conditions known to affect older adults.18

At a minimum, avoid keeping electronic gadgets next to you while sleeping and never sleep with the lights or TV on. A final area to consider is potential toxic exposures. Anxiety is a common symptom of toxic mold exposure, so you may want to check to see if there’s any kind of pattern going on in your life that may indicate this.

For example: Do your anxiety symptoms improve when you spend time away from your home or office? Do you feel better outdoors than indoors? Whatever steps you take to pursue nondrug alternatives for dealing with anxiety will be well worth it.

If you are already taking a benzodiazepine medication, I hope you will consider talking to your doctor about whether it’s time to discontinue it. Act today to ensure you won’t become one of the growing number of senior citizens hooked on antianxiety medications.

Sources and References:

Recommended articles by Dr. Joseph Mercola:

About the author:

Born and raised in the inner city of Chicago, IL, Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician trained in both traditional and natural medicine. Board-certified in family medicine, Dr. Mercola served as the chairman of the family medicine department at St. Alexius Medical Center for five years, and in 2012 was granted fellowship status by the American College of Nutrition (ACN).

While in practice in the late 80s, Dr. Mercola realized the drugs he was prescribing to chronically ill patients were not working. By the early 90s, he began exploring the world of natural medicine, and soon changed the way he practiced medicine.

In 1997 Dr. Mercola founded Mercola.com, which is now routinely among the top 10 health sites on the internet. His passion is to transform the traditional medical paradigm in the United States. “The existing medical establishment is responsible for killing and permanently injuring millions of Americans… You want practical health solutions without the hype, and that’s what I offer.”

Visit Mercola.com for more information, or read Dr. Mercola’s full bio and resumé here.


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