HealthDay News — Doctors continue to prescribe benzodiazepines for seniors despite the significant risks they pose, according to findings published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The analysis was based on national data from 2008 and included 11.5 million people. Overall, 5.2% of Americans aged 18 to 80 years were prescribed benzodiazepines, the researchers found.

Among people aged 18 to 35 years, 2.6% were prescribed benzodiazepines, whereas 8.7% of those aged 65 to 80 years were on the drugs.

Almost one-third of seniors given these medications stayed on them for at least four months, despite the fact that long-term use may make the medications less effective and carries a greater risk for dependence. Another study recently linked benzodiazepines to increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers hope the study is a wake-up call for health care professionals, according to a Columbia University Medical Center press release. They suggested that health care professionals could teach older adults who have trouble sleeping or experience anxiety about non-drug options for their problems.

“Examples include increasing light-to-moderate exercise, promoting supportive relationships, ensuring adequate exposure to natural light, avoiding stimulants such as caffeine late in the day, avoiding naps, establishing a regular, relaxing bedtime routine, and accepting that quality of sleep naturally tends to decline as we age,”  said study researcher Mark Olfson, MD, MPH, a professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

In an accompanying editorial, Nicholas Moore, MD, Antoine Pariente, MD, PhD, and Bernarnd Bégaud, MD, PhD, of the University of Bordeaux in France warn that benzodiazepines are nearly equivalent to placebo in terms of efficacy for insomnia, with the risk for addiction outweighing the minimal short-term benefits.

“Benzodiazepines should especially be used only for very short periods or avoided altogether in elderly individuals who are susceptible to cognitive impairment or to falls and fractures,” they emphasized, adding that restricting prescription authority to psychiatrists only may be the best way to curb over use.


  1. Olfson M et al. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014; doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.1763.
  2. Moore N et al. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014; doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.2190.