Art of Aging: Over-prescribed prescription drugs

New studies question whether anxiety and insomnia drugs really work
NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. (WPVI) -- Virtually everyone knows about America's opioid problem. However, there's another rising drug epidemic and it affects older Americans.

They are some of the most commonly prescribed drugs - those for insomnia and anxiety. Almost a third of older people take them.

Many are classified as benzodiazepines - such as Xanax, Ativan, Valium, or Halcion. A newer so-called "Z" class includes Ambien or Lunesta.

Both types can be very risky for the elderly, says Dr. Thomas Lawrenceof Main Line Health.

"Medications can affect older people differently than younger in a variety of ways," he said.

They can conflict with other medications or a person's chronic maladies.

"The drug can interfere with those underlying conditions, increasing the risk of adverse effects, such as falls, including falls that cause hip fractures, motor vehicle accidents, general confusion, and cognitive impairment," said Dr. Lawrence.

Overdoses are also a risk. Stanford University researchers say from 1999 to 2015, benzodiazepine overdose deaths skyrocketed from 1,135 to nearly 8,800.

Dr. Lawrence says new studies question whether the drugs actually work for anxiety - and there's another danger.

"They're habit-forming, they can be addictive. So, often people who get started on them have a hard time getting off them. So it perpetuates the use," he warns.

He says it's best to try non-drug solutions first. For insomnia, cut out caffeine.

"Frequently, older people will say I don't really drink coffee - when you ask them, they drink 3 cups in the morning, and they want a sleeping pill at night. Of course, a stimulant in the morning can still be active later as we get older," said Dr. Lawrence.

Talk therapy has been shown to help both insomnia and anxiety. Exercise, such as tai chi, can also be effective and mindfulness meditation may work best of all.

For more information from Main Line Health, click here.

For more information on sleep problems, click here.
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