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Does Valium Increase Your Chances of An Early Death?

The Rolling Stones may have been on to something...

Theodore Dalrymple


April 2, 2014 - 8:00 am
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Nearly half a century ago, in 1965, the Rolling Stones wrote a song called Mother’s Little Helper. The words went:

Kids are different today, I hear ev’ry mother say

Mother needs something today to calm her down

And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill

She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper

And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day…

They continued:

And if you take more of those

You will get an overdose

No more running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper

They just helped you on your way

Through your busy dying day…

The pill was valium (diazepam) and the yellow pill was 5 milligrams – as it still is. White is 2 milligrams and blue is 10.

The song was not great poetry, perhaps, but for pop music it was prescient pharmacovigilance, the epidemiological study of the adverse effects of drugs: though strictly speaking overdoses of diazepam are not dangerous. Many thousands of people have taken overdoses of diazepam in attempts to kill themselves with it, but few have succeeded unless they took something else with it.

However, it has long been known that diazepam and other similar drugs cause falls in the elderly, and such falls are often the precursor of death. It has also been suspected that, by some unspecified mechanism, diazepam (and sleeping draughts of all kinds) promote death.

A paper in a recent edition of the British Medical Journal compares the death rates of primary care patients who were prescribed diazepam-like medicines and hypnotics with those who never were prescribed them more than once (they excluded patients who had been prescribed them only once because it was possible that they had never taken them, which was unlikely if they were prescribed them twice). The authors compared the records of 37,000 of the former with 63,000 of the latter. They attempted to match them for such variables as age, social class, sex, and medical and psychiatric history. They followed the patients for an average of 7.6 years.

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All Comments   (11)
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An excellent article to be brought up for discussion.

The authors appreciate the multiple confounding factors in a retrospective study and attempted to control for as many as they could. The result fits empirical observation and common sense.

Of course one must appreciate that sedatives and hypnotics have both upsides and downsides. That is a broad statement as the outcome measured is mortality, not specific causes due to specific drugs or dosages.

One very plausible explanation would be increased risk of accidents in people taking these types of medications. Falls resulting in trauma such as head injury or hip fracture are common, particularly among elderly and result in considerable morbidity and mortality.

The BMJ article is a very well planned study. Results should only be interpreted as a warning to use caution in prescribing these classes of drugs especially in at risk patients.

28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
Also, why were they prescribed in the first place? Doctors don't hand them out like candy any more. You must be hurting or sick to get them.
That, all by itself, would tend to tilt the scales, to me.
27 weeks ago
27 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yet another study...yawn...

Contiguity does *NOT* prove causality! 

My mother, now 87, had a terrible time dealing with the death of my father at age 42 from a cerebral aneurism. She had a shrink who shoveled Valium AND miltown (a precursor of Valium) at her for 7-8 years which she complimented with booze. She finally got over it and straightened herself out and re-married. She's now twice a widow.

Her main problem now is pain from a recently broken leg. Still has all her marbles.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
They attempted to match them for such variables as age, social class, sex, and medical and psychiatric history.

But they could only do that if half the patients "needed" valium but didn't get it, or else NONE of the patients needed valium but half were given it, anyway.

Besides that, I wonder if in general those who received valium were equally (over)prescribed more treatments for everything else and this is an indictment of western medicine overall, at least for the elderly, at least in Britain, or whatever context the study took place in.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
I do not see the article in the BMJ as anything like "an indictment" of anything. Medical data like this is application of western medicine, not a rejection of it.

It is just medical information. Well controlled and good study so far as I could see.

Valium is one of the most usefull drugs available for many years now. Many others included in the study are as well. Just a study which indicates to the practitioner some help in how to use these powerful medications without causing unwanted harm.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
The reference to the Rolling Stones is High Irony. At least one of these guys were the most prolonged users of heroin in history. And he is still rocking his skinny English arse off.

I mean, if you want to condemn a drug, how about promoting something in its place? Like heroin, for example. Yes, too bad it's habit forming. So is air.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
"What the paper does not do (and other papers like it that found similar results) is suggest a mechanism by which all causes of death are increased by taking these drugs."

I'm not sure that can be done in any meaningful sense. All these chemicals have unknown and unintended effects in the body. All drugs do, for that matter.

Popping the little yellow or blue or white pill at the slightest appearance of angst usually means you're avoiding dealing with whatever has cropped up in your life.

Over-prescription of psychotropics in the US is staggering.

We're just beginning to acknowledge what rampant Ritalin prescription is doing to our children.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
I always had the notion that song was one of ridicule - The Stones' way of saying don't rip me for my use of illegal drugs while taking your legal drugs. A 'finger-pointing' if you will.

I grew up during the drug culture's rise and 'dipped' my toe into the culture after leaving military service in late 68. I remember that song well. Its still one of my favorite Stones song.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
Doctor, from what I've observed, being on damned near any potent medication for a span of many years seems to increase your chances of death. Soma for the masses = Shuffled off this Mortal Coil faster.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
They followed the patients for an average of 7.6 years.

It's not clear, to me, if this was following some period of medication or was coincidental.

29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
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