Trusted Content

Memory Loss From Benzodiazepines

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

January 23, 2019

Benzodiazepines, like any other medication, carry several side-effects that can affect an individual’s life in an adverse way. One important side-effect to be aware of is benzodiazepine’s potential to cause memory loss in some individuals.

Originally, benzodiazepines were developed to treat symptoms of certain disorders or medical conditions, such as anxiety, insomnia, or seizures. But physicians quickly found that benzodiazepines (commonly referred to as benzos) cannot be prescribed for long periods of time or they foster dependence. Even when prescribed for a short period of just a few weeks, a person taking benzodiazepines may be at risk for abuse. When this occurs, and a person tries to stop use, he or she may also undergo withdrawal symptoms.

It is important when taking any prescription to understand the side effects associated with it. For benzodiazepines, many side effects may result from abuse. One, in particular, can affect a person’s cognitive health long after the abuse has stopped, or even just through the withdrawal period: memory loss.

Benzodiazepine Abuse

Symptoms of abuse differ among people. However, there are some common signs which may indicate a person is suffering from benzodiazepine abuse. A person may be at risk if he or she is displaying three or more of the following signs:

  • Cravings, or compulsive drug-seeking
  • Lack of control in regards to substance—dosage, how often consumed, or unable to stop use
  • Withdrawal symptoms after stopping use
  • Signs of tolerance, i.e. no longer responding to typical dosage, and needing more and higher doses to achieve the same effects
  • Pursuing substance use even when faced with clear signs of abuse

Effects of abuse also differ among those suffering from abuse. Some short-term effects include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Grogginess
  • Headaches
  • Lack of coordination
  • Shaking
  • Troubles with vision

But long-term effects of benzodiazepines may last much longer than a headache or bout of dizziness. In addition to developing a tolerance to and dependence on benzos, a person may experience cognitive gaps, which result in memory loss.

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Why Do Benzodiazepines Cause Memory Loss?

To understand why benzodiazepines cause memory loss, one first has to understand how they operate in the brain. Benzodiazepines affect a receptor in the brain called the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA-A) receptor. They work by depressing the central nervous system (CNS). In depressing the CNS, benzodiazepines produce feelings of relaxation, and work by way of “psychomotor retardation,” according to Patient.info.

Benzodiazepines induce anterograde memory loss, which means that they may inhibit a person’s ability to recall memories from or make memories after a certain point in time or traumatic event. While for some people taking benzodiazepines this may be a welcome relief (trauma patients, for example), it is not generally a desirable result.

This may be especially true since recent research points to the fact that memory loss due to benzodiazepines may not be an effect just while taking them, but may last long term. In particular, people who take benzodiazepines and also drink alcohol, or suffer from alcohol abuse, may experience episodic memory loss. This means that the person struggles to remember details of recent events in his or her life—how they happened, when they happened, and more.

Perhaps even more troubling, though, is that for certain people, prolonged benzodiazepine use or abuse may lead to the development of Alzheimer’s, as explained by an article posted by Harvard Health Publications. For research efforts, a study was conducted based on almost 2,000 people who had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, comparing results and data with over 7,000 people who did not have it.

To illustrate the severity of the risk of Alzheimer’s development associated with benzodiazepine use, the article states, “taking the drug for three to six months raised the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 32%, and taking it for more than six months boosted the risk by 84%.” This article assumes that these patients were taking the prescriptions as directed. However, prolonged abuse of benzodiazepines could result in similar risks, as abuse can often plague a person for months, or even years.

Whether benzodiazepine abuse leads to memory loss during or immediately after an event, during abuse only, or leads to a mentally debilitating disease, it is best not to underestimate the effects of it. Substance abuse left untreated, in any form, can alter a person’s mental, emotional, and physical health. It can also lead to changes in a person’s job, school performance, and personal relationships. Fortunately, many treatments are available for substance abuse, and access to resources can be sought for help in recovery.

Overcoming Benzodiazepine Abuse

Benzodiazepines are commonly used for treatment of many disorders. Yet, if people become victims of benzodiazepine abuse, they may experience memory loss, or even be at risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. If someone you know is at risk of abuse, do not lose hope. You can seek the help you need today. Contact us at RehabCenter.net for more information.

American Family Physician - Addiction: Part I. Benzodiazepines—Side Effects, Abuse Risk And Alternatives

Benzo.org.uk - Benefits And Risks Of Benzodiazepines In Anxiety And Insomnia

Harvard Health Publications - Benzodiazepine Use May Raise Risk Of Alzheimer’s Disease

Patient.info - Benzodiazepine Dependence

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