“It’s worrying,” said Dr. Cara Tannenbaum of the Université de Montréal Faculties of Medicine and Pharmacy and the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal. “These are good and reliable drugs, which taken over a long period of time can become addictive. This makes the elderly vulnerable to a variety of secondary effects.” Tannenbaum is particularly concerned with the chronic consumption of benzodiazepines and anxiolytics that are found in Valium, which are widely used by Quebec women over 65. “Many women have been using them as ‘sleeping pills’ for 30 to 40 years, when it isn’t recommended to take these pills for more than a few weeks,” Tannenbaum explained.
Confusion, sleepiness, loss of balance and memory loss are just some of the problems than can result from the chronic consumption of these drugs. As a result, people are more likely to fall, which can be fatal, as they get older. In addition to the health risks to patients, these drugs cost the State millions of dollars every year. For example, benzodiazepines cost the Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec $15 million in 2000. This figure doesn’t include the costs of hospitalization and care required when these drugs are abused.
The reasons for over-consumption are complex. “Old age is filled with challenges. It’s very difficult to watch friends die and deal with declining health and solitude,” Tannenbaum says. “In some long term care homes, supper is served at 5:00 p.m. and it’s lights out at 7! I can understand why people get depressed!”
Tannenbaum believes the solution lies in better information. For the past two years, she has led the “La saine gestion des médicaments: passez à l’action” project that informs the elderly about the potential risks of their medication. She notes that there are also many alternatives to prescription medication. “A painful knee can be dealt with by using physiotherapy or even by speaking with a psychologist. The problem is that these options aren’t covered by insurance but the anxiolytics are!”