Benzo Deaths: Drugs Contributing to Early Mortality in Patients

Anyone who is old enough to have been around in the early 1960s is familiar with the term “mother’s little helper.” This idiom was used when referring to Librium, the popular and addictive anti-anxiety medication. Thousands of women depended on the drug to help them get through the stressful days and sleepless nights of raising a family. The prevalence of Librium addiction among women influenced the rock group, The Rolling Stones, to record a song about the issue.  During that decade and on into the late 1970s, the benzodiazepines known as Librium and Valium were prescribed in vast quantities.  In 1978, more than 2.3 million tablets were sold.  Today, doctors write more than 50 million prescriptions for Xanax (also a benzo) every year. Surprisingly, Valium is linked to more benzo deaths than illegal narcotics, and the numbers continue to rise.

These different types of benzos are contributing to early mortality, or benzo deaths, for thousands of people every year:

  • Antidepressants
  • Sedative/Hypnotics
  • Anxiolytics
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Skeletal Muscle Relaxants
  • Amnesics

It’s not clear whether the increased amount of benzodiazepines prescriptions is the result of patients needing larger doses, or if they are using the pills for more extended periods. Research shows that approximately one in twenty adults fills a benzo prescription during a one-year time-frame.  The studies also show that the number of adults purchasing benzos increased by 67 percent over an 18-year period.  It’s important to note that the benzodiazepine overdose death rate increased from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 in 1996 to 3.14 deaths per 100,000 in 2013. With these numbers in mind, it isn’t difficult to see that we need to be concerned about overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines, or benzo deaths, today.

What Pills are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that inhibit or reduce nerve cell activity (GABA-A receptors) in the brain.  They are commonly prescribed to treat depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances.  The drugs listed below are the most widely prescribed medications on the benzo drug list. These benzodiazepines include:

  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
  • Restoril (temazepam)
  • Versed (midazolam)

Of these, the most frequently abused drugs are Valium and Xanax.  Many recreational users tend to mix these drugs with alcohol or prescription opioids to achieve a longer-lasting euphoria. Studies completed in 2011 indicate that as many as 44 percent of chronic benzo users developed a dependency.  Some addicts claim that benzos are harder to quit than heroin.

Benzo Withdrawal Symptoms

Because of the long list of symptoms experienced with benzo withdrawal, professional treatment is advised.

Benzo withdrawal can cause the following symptoms:

  • Mood swings such as irritability, anxiety, depression
  • Blurred vision
  • Poor coordination
  • Confusion
  • Delusions, hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Memory problems
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Tremors, muscle tension
  • Seizures

When these symptoms appear, most benzo users find it easier to take another dose rather than go through this misery.  All the more reason to seek professional help.

Why are There So Many Benzo Deaths?

Most people think of benzos as a recreational drug used by the young generation. Surprisingly, though, millions of older adults are dependent or addicted to benzodiazepines. Some individuals were prescribed the drugs many years ago and are still using them.  Part of the reason they are even using the drugs has to do with misdiagnosis.  When some of the benzo-related symptoms appear, they are often attributed to old-age, and the real culprit goes undetected. In many cases, the person is prescribed another drug to counteract their symptoms, and their health is compromised even more.

We’re all familiar with a senior adult who struggles with dizziness, memory problems, fatigue, and clumsiness.  Many are taking benzos combined with other dangerous drugs such as blood pressure meds, arthritis painkillers, muscle relaxers, and heart medication.  Each of these medicines causes a variety of physical and mental side effects that are compounded exponentially with each drug that is added to the cocktail.  After prolonged use, these drugs can have debilitating effects on an older adult.  Far too often, the combined impacts have caused untimely benzo deaths.

To understand the depth of the problem, we have to look at some of the facts:

  • Older adults who rely on two or more of the above drugs are three times more likely to die within two years than those who don’t take the drugs.
  • They are more at risk of suffering noticeable memory loss and cognitive problems.  Some are unable to perform even menial household tasks or drive a vehicle.
  • One-fifth of patients taking more than one of the drugs died within two years.
  • Those patients who were taking several of the drugs scored 4% lower on tests that checked brain functioning.
  • Almost one-half of the patients studied were taking one or more of the at-risk drugs.
  • Deaths are more than double in older adults who take benzos or other sedative/hypnotics.

To help protect elderly patients, the American Geriatric Society has added benzodiazepines to their list of potentially inappropriate drugs for older people to take.  They are concerned with the risks involved such as motor vehicle accidents or falls that cause bone fractures leading to hospitalization or death.  Extensive studies show that the risk of these incidents is doubled in elderly persons who take benzodiazepines.

Recreational use of benzodiazepines usually involves a combination of alcohol or other drugs to enhance the effects.  Death from benzo abuse alone is uncommon, but when used in conjunction with other substances, the results can be lethal.  Some of the side effects of benzo abuse can include slurred speech, drowsiness, weakness, confusion, difficulty breathing, and coma.

What is Being Done to Prevent Needless Deaths from Rx Drugs?

Many people are unaware of the dangers of prescription drugs because they trust their physician.  They don’t ask questions or research the drugs, and this level of blind trust often leads to unexpected life-threatening consequences.  People who choose to abuse these drugs for recreational purposes also assume the drugs are safe because a doctor prescribed them.

Lack of education about the dangers of prescription drugs is causing needless deaths every day. Advocates for drug prevention and education are increasing their efforts to spread awareness and save lives.  Government officials and the DEA are encouraging physicians to participate in the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP).  Other programs and organizations that are involved in the prevention of drug abuse include, but are not limited to:

  • M.A.D.D. – Mothers Against Drunk Driving
  • D.A.R.E. –  Drug Abuse Resistance Education
  • N.O.P.E. – Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education
  • NCADD –  National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
  • SAMHSA – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • CADCA –  Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America

Additional information about education and prevention organizations can be found online. Also, a list of prescription drugs, their side effects, questions to ask, and interactions with other drugs are available online.

It’s important to trust your physician, but it’s also important to protect yourself from unforeseen danger. Each person must be their advocate and take steps to learn about the drugs they are prescribed.  If you are seeing more than one doctor, be sure each of them is aware of any medications prescribed by your other physician.  Adult children can help their older parents by being aware of all medications they are taking, and help them establish a routine that will prevent overdosing or skipping doses. Senior citizens are sometimes linked to benzo deaths because they don’t remember if they have taken their medication and end up taking too much.

Are you, or someone you love struggling with benzo abuse or addiction problems?  If so, please call our toll-free number now.  At About Addiction, our experts are ready to help you choose a treatment program that is right for your needs. Don’t become a statistic in the reports of benzo deaths.