What Effect Do Benzos Have on Long-Term Brain Health?

A new study offers mixed results

A commonly used pill could lead to health trouble down the line.
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Across the world, people make use of benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium and Klonopin as a way to reduce anxiety and lower the frequency of seizures. (It probably goes without saying, but there are also numerous ways in which this group of drugs can be abused.) For people who are using benzodiazepines under a doctor’s instructions, though, there may be some unforeseen risks that could jeopardize their health in the long term.

That’s among the big takeaways from a study published this week in the journal BMC Medicine. The researchers used data from the Rotterdam Study, a program that examined the health of a group of subjects in Rotterdam from 1990 to 2008. Their goal was to see if use of benzodiazepines showed any connection to neurological damage or risk of dementia, and to investigate this they followed over 5,000 participants in the aforementioned study.

Their conclusions? “[O]verall use of benzodiazepines was not associated with increased dementia risk,” the authors wrote — but they also indicated that further studies could provide a deeper look into some “associations with subclinical markers of neurodegeneration.”

The scientists finding a lack of correlation between benzodiazepine use and dementia in study participants is good news for benzo users concerned about their long-term cognitive health. But as Live Science’s Emily Cooke pointed out in an article on the study, there is one potentially unsettling finding in these results.

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Specifically, that has to do with the potential effects of benzodiazepines on the size of the brain. As Cooke notes, the scientists found signs that both the hippocampus and amygdala shrunk over time in study participants who took benzodiazepines. What that might mean for cognitive health — and general health, full stop — will be up to a future study to piece together.

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