Making Things Worse: Benzos and Alzheimer’s

When my aunt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more than three years ago, it was an extremely stressful time for her.

An independent woman who had a long career in finance and survived two divorces, my aunt knew that she was having trouble with her memory but refused to admit it or ask for help. As it became apparent that something had to be done, friends and family came together to help her move into an assisted care facility. My aunt knew in her heart that it had to be done but she was angry – angry that life had dealt her a crappy hand, angry that she couldn’t take care of herself, angry that this was not how she wanted to live her life.  I knew that this would be a tough transition and that she was upset, but what I didn’t realize was how anxious she would become.

“Are you going to put me away?” she asked repeatedly every time I saw her. “No, we are only setting things up you so that you have extra help every day,” I would reply. It struck me as odd at the time, that phrase “put me away”. It wasn’t until a few months later that I found out more about my aunt’s medical and psychological history. Through a few comments sprinkled in our conversation, I realized that she had been institutionalized when she was a young woman and subject to a variety of physical and pharmacological treatments. Reading between the lines of her story, it was done against her will. Was it necessary? Most likely. Was it traumatic? Definitely.

The sunny and warm assisted care facility with its big social lobby and beautiful songbird cage that was just a mile from her long-time home and situated by her church and the creek seemed a perfect place. However, it took on much darker tones to her once she moved in.  The structured routine, the gentle nudges to eat properly and exercise and the fact that she had to sign in and out to leave made her think she was in “lock down”.  I started receiving desperate calls at all hours with her crying and begging, and the staff reported that she wasn’t sleeping and was throwing things at the walls.  She couldn’t live alone and as a working mom I couldn’t care for her, so we needed to make this work.

I called her primary care doctor, who issued her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and asked about anti-anxiety medication and if there was a way to ease her peace of mind.  “Absolutely not” was his response much to my dismay. He was adamant that it was the wrong course of action, reasoning that she would become less active and it might counteract her current medications. He suggested that we see if her anxiety evened out after she had more time to adjust. At the time, I wasn’t happy and it seemed to me that a little Xanax couldn’t hurt and could only help my 83-year-old aunt.

Reading this article in The Science Explorer blog today, I realize how very wrong I was about that.  A recent Canadian study of 9,000 patients showed that benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc) are not only ineffective but highly increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s when taken for more than six months. The “benzo” Band-aid doesn’t help and has dramatically adverse side effects.

I’m not a big fan of doctors normally but the next time I see my aunt’s primary care doctor, I think I will give him a big kiss and a hug for talking me out of what would have been a really bad decision.

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