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    New Study: Overdose Deaths From Sedatives Have Surged

a sleeping woman in bed with medicine pills on a side table

Overdose deaths involving benzodiazepine drugs, a class of sedatives that includes Xanax, Valium and Klonopin, have increased more than fourfold since 1996, according to a new study.

“Benzodiazepines are risky drugs; that’s the bottom line,” says Dr. Larissa Loukianova, medical director of Mayo Clinic’s Comprehensive Pain Rehabilitation Center.

Dr. Loukianova, who is not part of the study, says patients need to be educated about the risks of overdose associated with benzodiazepines, also known as “benzos,” especially when taken in conjunction with opioid medications for chronic conditions.

“Both benzodiazepines and opiates are brain depressants. Biological interactions between benzodiazepines and opiates can lead to respiratory failure," Dr. Loukianova explains. “Patients taking both benzodiazepines and opioids have a 15-fold increase in risk of death, compared with those who are not taking those medications.”

An estimated 1 in 20 American adults fills a benzodiazepine prescription during the course of a year. The drugs are prescribed for conditions such as anxiety, mood disorders and insomnia.

In the study, published online in American Journal of Public Health, researchers looked at overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines, including deaths involving other medications, alcohol or illicit drugs from 1996 to 2013.

Analysis revealed several key points:

  • The number of adults purchasing a benzodiazepine prescription increased 67 percent during the study’s time frame.
  • The average quantity filled during the year more than doubled during the time frame.
  • The overdose death rate increased from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 adults in 1996 to 3.14 deaths per 100,000 adults in 2013, a more than fourfold increase.

Overall, the rate of overdose deaths from benzodiazepines has leveled off since 2010. But, for a few groups – adults 65 and over, and African Americans and Hispanics – the rate of overdose deaths after 2010 continued to rise, according to the study.

Dr. Loukianova says these overdoses are completely preventable, in part, by considering alternatives to benzos. “There are other evidence-based treatments that should be considered before prescribing benzodiazepines, especially for patients using opioids.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), quoted in recent news reports, says it “is committed to working with the health care community and our federal, state and local partners to help reduce opioid and benzodiazepine misuse and abuse." The FDA goes on to say, "We will continue to monitor the combined use of these products and take necessary actions to ensure prescribers and the public are informed of the risks involved with the use of these medications."