Objective: There is evidence of more widespread use and abuse of benzodiazepines (BZPs) among elderly women. However, factors underlying this observation are poorly understood but could be related to more intense withdrawal reactions, which are a major risk factor for continued BZP use. We previously reported elevations in interdose morning plasma cortisol levels in healthy elderly individuals after chronic treatment with alprazolam, possibly consistent with increased hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity and drug withdrawal. In this study, we examined sex-related differences in this population. Method: Twenty-five cognitively intact healthy elderly (13 women and 12 men) participated in a parallel, double-blind, placebo-controlled study that included a group that received acute and chronic (3 weeks) treatment with alprazolam (0.5 mg b.i.d.). Results: Elderly women, but not men, experienced significant elevations in interdose morning plasma cortisol levels over 3 weeks of chronic treatment with alprazolam (0.5 mg b.i.d.) compared to placebo. In addition, higher morning plasma cortisol levels were significantly associated with better cognitive performance but not with higher plasma drug levels or greater degree of tolerance development to an acute alprazolam challenge. Conclusion: Elderly females experienced a greater interdose activation of the HPA axis during treatment with therapeutic doses of alprazolam than men, which could be related to drug withdrawal.
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