Benzodiazepines are a class of sedatives that are widely prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders and they are generally considered pretty safe. Xanax and Valium are two of the best-known of these drugs, though they go by a long list of names.
Doctors tend to prescribe sedatives pretty freely to older adults, but a new study finds that the drugs pose risks for them. Research published in the British Medical Journal looked at elderly people who began taking benzodiazpines and found that they experienced an approximately 50% increased risk of dementia over a 15-year follow up period. Previous studies on the subject had produced conflicting results, and researchers had considered the possibility that in some people the anxiety that led to sedatives being prescribed was actually an early sign of dementia, creating the incorrect impression that the sedatives were causing dementia. However, this large, long-term study controlled for that possibility, and presents a strong argument that sedatives pose a risk.
So if you have elderly parents who takes sedatives, you might encourage them to talk to their doctors about alternatives, or at least to cut back on the frequency with which they pop the pills. It's unclear whether taking sedatives at midlife increases your risk of dementia later, but to me this study says that we should use them sparingly.
There are a wide variety of ways other than pills to beat stress and fight insomnia, here are a few suggestions: