Use of benzodiazepines and related drugs common around Alzheimer's diagnosis

Benzodiazepines and related drugs are initiated frequently in persons with Alzheimer's disease already before the diagnosis, and their use becomes even more common after the diagnosis, shows a recent study from the University of Eastern Finland. Benzodiazepines and related drugs are used as a sleep medication and for anxiolytic purposes. These drugs were initiated more frequently in persons with Alzheimer's disease than in persons not diagnosed with AD. Compared to persons not diagnosed with AD, it was three times more likely for persons with Alzheimer's disease to initiate benzodiazepine use after the diagnosis, and benzodiazepines were most commonly initiated six months after the diagnosis.

The findings are based on data from the Finnish Medication Use and Alzheimer's Disease Study, Medalz. Medalz comprises nationwide, extensive register-based data from the Finnish health care registers, and it includes all persons diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in Finland between 2005 and 2011. The study, published now in Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, analysed the initiation of benzodiazepines and related drugs in 51,981 persons diagnosed with AD. Their use of drugs was monitored for a period of five years, and the follow-up started already two years before the diagnosis. The findings were compared to persons not diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease who were matched based on age and gender.

According to the Finnish Current Care Guidelines, benzodiazepines can be used on a short-term basis to treat behavioural problems associated with Alzheimer's disease. However, data on the benefits of these drugs in the treatment of behavioural problems is insufficient, but it is known that these drugs increase the risk of falls and cause cognitive impairment.

One of the earlier studies on Medalz study found that in Finland, benzodiazepines are used for extensive periods in persons with Alzheimer’s disease. This, together with the current finding of frequent initiations of these drugs, paints a picture of a possible delay in AD diagnoses and concerning practice of symptom-based treatment before and around diagnosis.

For further information, please contact:

Professor Sirpa Hartikainen, University of Eastern Finland, School of Pharmacy, tel. +358403553784, sirpa.hartikainen@uef.fi

Research article:

Saarelainen L, Taipale H, Koponen M, Tanskanen A, Tolppanen A-M, Tiihonen J, Hartikainen S: The incidence of benzodiazepine and related drug use in persons with and without Alzheimer's disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, published online 17 October 2015.

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The University of Eastern Finland, UEF, is one of the largest universities in Finland. The activities of the UEF underscore multidisciplinarity, and the university is especially strong in research related to forests and the environment, health and well-being, and new technologies and materials. The UEF offers teaching in more than 100 major subjects. In addition to the high standard of teaching, the university offers its students a modern study environment, which is under constant development. The university comprises four faculties: the Philosophical Faculty, the Faculty of Science and Forestry, the Faculty of Health Sciences, and the Faculty of Social Sciences and Business Studies. The university’s campuses are located in the heart of beautiful eastern Finland in Joensuu, Kuopio and Savonlinna. The UEF is home to approximately 15 000 students and nearly 2 800 members of staff.

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