July 25, 1997

Anxiety medicine linked to elderly car crashes: study

Anxiety medicine linked to elderly car crashes: study

A commonly prescribed anxiety and depression medication may play a part in many automobile accidents among elderly drivers, writes Dr. Wayne A. Ray, professor of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in a recent editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The editorial was in support of a study by Canadian researchers who found that elderly drivers who took certain benzodiazepine drugs were significantly more likely to be involved in an injurious car crash than were similar drivers who did not take the drugs.

Ray wrote that the researchers' findings illustrate a significant public safety issue.

"The importance of this topic is underscored by the high prevalence of benzodiazepine use in the study cohort. On any given day, one of every five older drivers was taking a benzodiazepine despite package insert warnings to avoid these medications when operating a motor vehicle."

The Canadian researchers found that only long-half-life benzodiazepines appeared to have a significant effect on elderly drivers' ability to operate a motor vehicle safely, but Ray cautions that more research needs to be done to determine the effects of other types of these drugs before they can be declared safe for elderly drivers.

He also warns that use of the drug is only one of a myriad of dangers posed by the nation's growing population of elderly drivers.

"Benzodiazepine use is but one of many factors that may impair driving and that are more common among older than younger drivers. These include use of other central nervous system-active medications, cognitive impairment, perceptual deficits, neurological disorders, musculoskeletal problems, and other medical conditions," he writes.

This problem is particularly complicated because of the independence and mobility automobiles represent for all Americans, Ray wrote, adding that more research is necessary in order to develop creative solutions that address both issues.

"Absent a reinvigorated research agenda for crashes in older drivers, we are unlikely to strike the delicate balance between safe driving and the mobility and independence of an aging population," he writes.