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When taken by pregnant women, Xanax has been associated with birth defects like “floppy baby” syndrome, neonatal depression and withdrawal, cleft lip and palate, heart defects, and other malformations. The FDA has classified the drug as a “category D,” meaning it is not safe for use during pregnancy, particularly during the first trimester.

Now, new research suggests that Xanax may not be safe for older adults, either. Published in the British Medical Journal, the study found that people who started taking Xanax or other similar medications like Ativan or Valium after the age of 65 had a 50 percent greater chance of developing dementia in 15 years than those who had never taken the drugs.

Studies Link Xanax with Birth Defects

In addition to birth defects, Xanax has also been linked to higher risk of induced and spontaneous abortions in pregnant women taking the medication, as well as pre-term and low-weight births. A 2008 study examined the combination of Xanax and certain selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, as these are often prescribed together, to see how the combination may affect new mothers and their babies.

After reviewing the data for over 100,000 births, the researchers found a higher incidence of congenital heart disease in infants exposed to the combination of the two medications during the first trimester.

New Link with Increased Risk of Dementia

Current Xanax labeling warns doctors and patients of the potential risk of birth defects. But now there may be another side effect that some patients and their healthcare providers need to be concerned about.

For the study, researchers examined data from over 1,000 men and women with an average age of 78. All were dementia-free at the start of the study, and were followed for 20 years. A total of 95 of the patients started taking a benzodiazepine medication during the study. The results showed that the chances of a person developing dementia was 4.8 per 100 person years in the group taking the drugs, and 3.2 per 100 person years in those not taking it.

“Considering the extent to which benzodiazepines are prescribed and the number of potential adverse effects of this drug class in the general population,” the researchers wrote, “indiscriminate widespread use should be cautioned against.”

Not the First Study to Link Xanax with Risks for the Elderly

Xanax and similar drugs have also been linked with an increased risk of falls in the elderly. In November 2012, a study published in Maturitas reported that seniors taking psychiatric drugs like Xanax were twice as likely to experience a fall three or more times in a year.

“This study confirms that taking psychotropic medication, including short-acting benzodiazepines,” the researchers wrote,” strongly increases the frequency of falls in the elderly.”

Addiction with these types of drugs is also common, since they boost the brain’s supply of a neurotransmitter called “gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)” in the same way as opioid drugs do. Over time, individuals can become addicted, and may grow more susceptible to accidental overdoses.

Between 2002 and 2007, the number of U.S. prescriptions for benzodiazepine drugs grew from 69 million to 83 million. Long-term use, however, in addition to these other risks, has also been associated with brain damage. Those who have suffered severe side effects after taking the drugs may be able to recover damages in a Xanax lawsuit.

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