(NaturalNews) Doctors are still widely prescribing a popular class of sleep and anxiety drugs to the very populations most likely to suffer lethal side effects, according to a study conducted by researchers from St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and published in the journal Drugs and Aging.
"Patients need to hear this and health care providers need to give thought into who they are prescribing this medication class to," lead author Nicholas Vozoris said.
The drug family in question is known as benzodiazepines, and it includes such top sellers as Xanax, Valium, Ambien, Halcion, Klonopin, Lorazepam, Restorial and many others. Originally marketed as anti-anxiety drugs, the drugs are powerful sedatives and are now commonly marketed as sleep aids as well. They may also be used as muscle relaxants.
This muscle relaxant effect is among the most dangerous features of the drugs, and benzodiazepines have been known to induce serious and even fatal respiratory distress in people with underlying respiratory conditions such as bronchitis.
Use highest among those most at risk
To evaluate whether doctors are taking safety concerns into account when prescribing benzodiazepines, the researchers examined the drugs' use in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an umbrella term that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Benzodiazepines have been regularly prescribed for COPD patients in the past, many of whom suffer from anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Due to the risk of respiratory depression; however, doctors are now advised to avoid this practice. Yet; until now, there has been no research to examine whether doctors have actually been following these guidelines.
The researchers examined health data on more than 100,000 COPD patients who were above the age of 65 between 2004 and 2009. They found that more than 33 percent of COPD patients received a new benzodiazepine prescription during that time period. Patients with COPD were 40 percent more likely to be prescribed the drugs than patients with less severe forms of the disease, and were also the most likely to receive repeat prescriptions. COPD patients were also regularly prescribed the drugs during flare-ups.
"These findings are new and they are concerning because they tell us that the patients most at risk to be affected by the adverse effects of this drug are the same ones that are using it with the most frequency," Vozoris said. "This medication could be causing harm in this already respiratory-vulnerable population."
"Considering the potential respiratory side-effects, and the well-documented neurocognitive side effects like memory loss, decreased alertness, falls and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, the high frequency of benzodiazepine use in COPD is very concerning."
A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that people who took benzodiazepines were 50 percent more likely to develop dementia, while a 2011 study found a 60 percent increased risk. And a 2012 study found that people who took more than four pills per year were 3.6 times more likely to die early than those who took none, while those who took more than 131 pills were 5.3 times more likely to die early.