Long-term use of common anxiety drugs can increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a new study has found. Older adults who habitually use sedatives for anxiety or insomnia may have a heightened risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The study is published in the British Medical Journal.

“Benzodiazepine use is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The stronger association observed for long term exposures reinforces the suspicion of a possible direct association, even if benzodiazepine use might also be an early marker of a condition associated with an increased risk of dementia. Unwarranted long term use of these drugs should be considered as a public health concern,” reads the Study.

Benzodiazepine is a widely prescribed group of sedatives that include lorazepam (Ativan), diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax). The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) has put benzodiazepines on its list of “potentially inappropriate”  for seniors as the drug is known to increase risks of several problems such as confusion, dizziness and falls.

For the study, 1796 people with a first diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and followed up for at least six years before were matched with 7184 controls on sex, age group, and duration of follow-up. Both groups were randomly sampled from older people (age >66) living in the community in 2000-09.

During the study period, 894 people with Alzheimer’s disease (49.8%) and 2873 controls (40.0%) had ever used benzodiazepines; the treatment was still active at the date of the diagnosis of dementia in 64.8% of cases and 60.6% of controls.

“In view of the evidence, it is now crucial to encourage physicians to carefully balance the risks and benefits when initiating or renewing a treatment with benzodiazepines and related products in older patients,” the authors of the study wrote.

Alzheimer’s disease, a condition characterized by the slow erosion of thinking and memory, is the nation’s sixth-leading killer, and the No. 1 cause of dementia. Alzheimer’s affects 5.2 million people in the U.S., including 13 percent of those over age 65, and 40 percent of those over 85.

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