Benzodiazepines and Cognitive Loss

woman with cognitive loss

Benzodiazepines are a widely-prescribed class of anti-anxiety drug. You may not realize it, but most of these drugs are intended for short-duration use. After several weeks or months of use, most of them lose their therapeutic effect. All of these drugs are addictive and have a high potential for abuse which is another reason to only prescribe them for brief periods.

While a couple of more recent additions to this list have a longer therapeutic effect, they still have that risk of addiction. A person wanting or needing to come off benzodiazepines must work closely with a doctor because of the withdrawal symptoms that can be dangerous, including seizures and severe mental disturbances.

When a person is abusing these drugs, they are generally past the point of worrying about side effects or duration of treatment. It’s very common for opiate abusers to add benzodiazepines to the mix, as it makes the effects of the opiates stronger. Combinations like this are so popular, they have their own nicknames.

Prescription opiates + a benzodiazepine like Xanax or Valium = Las Vegas Cocktail.

Prescription opiates + benzodiazepine + muscle relaxant like Soma = Houston Cocktail.

It is said that the combination provides an effect similar to a potent dose of heroin.

Together, opiates and benzodiazepines also pose a greater threat of respiratory shutdown that can lead to death. A cocktail of opiates and benzodiazepines were the cause of death for Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in early 2014.

Recent research has documented the loss of cognitive sharpness that can result from using or abusing this class of drug. Dr. Peter Breggin lists cognitive losses that may accompany abuse of this class of drug:

  • Short-term memory impairment
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Disinhibition – a loss of inhibitions; unrestrained and abnormal behavior
  • Extreme agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Violence toward self and others
  • Psychosis

A study published on the National Institutes of Health website notes that benzodiazepine users are likely to see a return of cognitive abilities when they quit taking the drug, but the data the researchers had available did not suggest that full recovery of abilities would occur within the first six months and that there could be permanent deficiencies.

In the elderly, benzodiazepines are often prescribed as a sleep aid – in fact, in France, 30% of the elderly are prescribed this medication. An extensive review of elderly patients taking this drug showed a 50% increased risk of developing dementia. Still, more than 11 million prescriptions were written in the UK in one year, and more than 80 million in the US.

You can easily see the risk a person is taking if he (or she) is abusing benzodiazepines. Not only is there the risk of overdose death, but the individual may be accumulating cognitive damage that could take months to repair – if it ever fully repairs.

If a loved one is misusing benzos, don’t wait a moment longer. Get the rehabilitation help that person needs – using an interventionist, if necessary. You don’t have to wait for them to ask for help or “hit rock bottom” – a concept that is losing its popularity these days. Call us and we can help you work out the plan for your loved one to arrive at our doors, ready to recover. Every day truly counts, when you are dealing with addiction.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.