Xanax use can result in negative side effects, including memory loss. The risk of these negative effects is compounded with abuse of the drug.
Xanax Use and Abuse
Xanax, or alprazolam, is a benzodiazepine. This sedative medication is commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders.
Like many prescription drugs that have the potential for abuse, it is possible to take the drug only for its recommended use and then easily stop taking the drug a short time later when it is no longer needed.
Unfortunately, many people — especially those who are in the throes of an anxiety attack at the time they must objectively determine what constitutes safe use of the drug — ultimately develop an addiction to Xanax. Along the way, they develop other significant problems, including memory loss.
In 2014, more than 47 million prescriptions for Xanax were given to patients, making it the 11th most commonly prescribed drug in the country.
Xanax works in the central nervous system to slow down body systems and create a sense of calm when the body is in the midst of a “fight-or-flight” response due to environmental stimuli. This dulling of the senses can translate into being less present and aware in the moment.
Though this may be the intent if, for example, social anxiety is overwhelming and it is necessary for the brain to not fully process the number of people in the room, it can be detrimental to other cognitive functioning, including memory. This can be true both while the individual is actively under the influence of the drug and long after if Xanax use is heavy and frequent.
One study published in Behavioural Neurology noted that alprazolam is an anxiolytic drug that has been found to cause anterograde amnesia. They built upon this notion by testing the effects of chronic use of the drug in healthy males.
Using the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB), the subjects were tested before the start of the study and then after completing Xanax treatment.
This demonstrates that, even without the existence of other diagnosed or chronic disorders, regular use of Xanax can add up to memory impairment.
A study published in Psychopharmacology found that when swallowing Xanax was compared with inhaling it, there was a higher risk of developing an addiction when the drug was inhaled.
However, dose level most significantly impacted the experience of side effects like memory loss. The higher the dose of the drug, the more significant the impairment to both short-term and long-term memory while under the influence. Chronic, high-dose use most drastically increased the risk of long-term memory loss.
It is possible that memory loss while taking Xanax may not be an effect of the medication. The medication may be worsening this effect, but an underlying issue may cause it.
This highlights the importance of having a team of doctors who work together to treat an individual patient, especially when chronic or co-occurring disorders are present.
This allows all prescribing physicians the insight of others’ findings and the ability to notice when problems develop. They can then sidestep the use of treatments or medications that may interfere with other ongoing treatments and increase the risk of memory loss.
When it comes to Xanax use specifically, the side effect of memory loss caused by the use of the drug can lead to other problems but does not necessarily indicate the presence of other issues. For example, if a patient is taking Xanax and experiences memory loss and attempts to drive a car, they are likely incapable of driving that vehicle safely.
Similarly, if the person taking Xanax is also taking other drugs, including marijuana and/or alcohol, that can impact memory function and ability. Xanax use will only worsen the issue, potentially causing blackouts and erratic and unsafe choices while under the influence of these substances.
For example, one study published in Addictive Behaviors found that the use of prescription drugs like Xanax while out partying was correlated with higher rates of negative sexual events among college-age men and women.
In addition to amnesia and lesser forms of memory loss, potential side effects of Xanax can be life-altering and even deadly. One-time use or chronic use, ongoing medical and mental health issues, the use of other substances, and other factors can all increase or decrease the chances of experiencing side effects from Xanax.
Pills that are bought online or on the street may have other substances in them. They may or may not include alprazolam at all, which can further contribute to risk of experiencing fatal side effects.
There is evidence to suggest that, almost 40 years ago, Britain’s Medical Council suppressed the release of research that found Xanax and other benzodiazepines have the potential to cause brain damage with long-term use. According to Psychology Today, further research in the 1990s demonstrated that Xanax addiction can be deadly due to brain damage when seizures are triggered by use of the drug.
Xanax and other benzodiazepines are categorized as Schedule IV substances by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This means they have medical purpose and a low possibility of abuse. Unfortunately, the regular use of these drugs quickly causes physical dependence.
Because Xanax is prescribed for the treatment of anxiety, it is very common for patients to even more quickly develop psychological dependence on the drug, believing they need it to function in uncomfortable situations. When both physical and psychological dependence co-occur, addiction is often diagnosed, and treatment is required.
When swallowed, Xanax can take effect anywhere from 15 minutes to 30 minutes after ingestion. However, it is not a short-acting substance.
Though everyone is different and factors will impact how quickly Xanax is metabolized out of the body, Xanax has a half-life of about 11 hours. That is, though the effects of the drug will peak about an hour or so after taking the medication and slowly fade over the next few hours, half of the drug will still be in the system 11 hours later. It can take up to four days to fully process a single dose of Xanax out of the body.
Though the person may not be feeling the effects of Xanax a few hours after taking the drug, their body still holds almost the full dose in their system. Continuing to take more and more pills or layering in the use of other substances will build on that foundational use of Xanax, causing many users to overdose without even realizing they have so much of the drug in their system.
Few people realize that alprazolam is 10 times more potent than diazepam, or Valium. Though many refer to both drugs interchangeably, Xanax is far stronger and stays in the body longer, making it a more dangerous drug to use.
A study published in the journal Mindfulness found that working memory was often deeply impacted by mental and behavioral health issues.
For example, it might be easier for someone who has experienced trauma or who does not want to experience the negative effects of a poor choice to “lose” the memory of the event as a matter of self-protection. To avoid re-exposure to the trauma through memory, the mind may work to protect itself by altering events or forgetting them entirely when there are no positive coping mechanisms available to process the event more healthfully.
The best way to treat all effects caused by long-term Xanax use, including memory loss, is to undergo treatment that will address all disorders contributing to the person’s current struggle.
Because people who live with Xanax addiction are often also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it is necessary to begin a treatment program that has the resources and expertise to address:
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