Benzodiazepine Use and Misuse Among Adults in the United States

When I was a substance abuse therapist in the ’70s, I was surprised by the power of benzo addiction in very old people.

by Donovan T. Maust , M.D., M.S., Lewei A. Lin , M.D., Frederic C. Blow , Ph.D.


Goals were to determine the prevalence of benzodiazepine use (as prescribed and misuse), characterize misuse, and examine variation by age.


A cross-sectional analysis was conducted of 2015 and 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health data limited to adults ≥18 (N=86,186) and data from those respondents reporting benzodiazepine use (N=10,290). Measurements included past-year prescription benzodiazepine use and misuse (“any way a doctor did not direct”), substance use disorders, mental illness, and demographic characteristics. Misuse was compared between younger (18–49) and older (≥50) adults.


A total of 30.6 million adults (12.6%) reported past-year benzodiazepine use—25.3 million (10.4%) as prescribed and 5.3 million (2.2%) misuse. Misuse accounted for 17.2% of overall use. Adults ages 50–64 had the highest prescribed use (12.9%). Those ages 18–25 had the highest misuse (5.2%), and those ages ≥65 had the lowest (.6%). Misuse and abuse of or dependence on prescription opioids or stimulants were strongly associated with benzodiazepine misuse. Benzodiazepine misuse without a prescription was the most common type of misuse, and a friend or relative was the most common source. Adults ages ≥50 were more likely than younger adults to use a benzodiazepine more often than prescribed and to use a benzodiazepine to help with sleep.


Benzodiazepine use among U.S. adults was higher than previously reported, and misuse accounted for nearly 20% of use overall. Use by adults ages 50–64 now exceeds use by those ages ≥65. Patients also prescribed stimulants or opioids should be monitored for benzodiazepine misuse. Improved access to behavioral interventions for sleep or anxiety may reduce some misuse.

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