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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 8.4% of American adults are taking sleeping pills in order to sleep better. Sleep is an imperative aspect of our daily lives, so missing out on it can have serious consequences on our health. As we age, the risk of sleep disorders increases, and this may explain why the usage of sleeping medication is highest among older adults, with 11.9% of those aged over 65 using sleep medications.

Now while it’s important for you to get enough sleep, especially when you’re older, the use of these medications may be doing more harm than good. In fact, by using sleeping pills, you may be getting your 8 hours, all while increasing your risk for dementia. 

Sleep Medications and Brain Health

According to a team of researchers from the University of California, the effect of sleeping pills on cognitive health in older adults remains controversial. In an effort to find an association between the use of sleeping pills and the risk of dementia, the researchers analyzed the data of 3068 dementia-free adults in their 70s. 

The participants answered questions about their sleeping pill use and frequency. The researchers noted that 138 white participants and 34 Black participants reported that they took sleep medication “often or almost always,“. These drugs include antihistamines, melatonin, valerian, antidepressants, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, and zolpidem (Ambien).

The researcher followed the participants for 15 years, during which 20% of them had developed dementia. 

Do sleeping pills cause dementia?

“Frequent sleep medication use was associated with an increased risk of dementia in white older adults. Further research is needed to determine underlying mechanisms.” – (Leng, 2022)

The results, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, concluded that white participants who “often” or “almost always” took sleep medications faced a 79% increased risk of developing dementia compared to those who “never” or “rarely” used these drugs.

On the other, the same risk was not seen among the Black participants who used sleep medications at the same rates as their white counterparts. 

Dr. Percy Griffin is the director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association. Speaking to MedicalNewsToday, he provided a theory as to why a similar association was not found among Black participants:

“Previous studies have shown that there might be racial biases in the prescription of controlled substances. This study and others showed that Blacks are less likely to receive a prescription for a benzodiazepine. Benzodiazepines have been found to have anticholinergic activity, which increases the risk for dementia.”

Should we quit sleeping pills?

It is important to remember that this study is an observational one, which means that the researchers cannot prove direct cause and effect. Speaking to Healthline, Yue Leng, lead author of the study, said that further studies are needed to confirm whether sleep medications themselves are harmful to cognition in older adults,

“Further studies are needed to confirm if frequent use of sleep medications is an indicator of something else that links to increased dementia risk.”

Having said that, Leng’s study is not the first to find an association between sleeping pills and increased dementia risk. 

A 2014 study published in the BMJ found that among 8990 elderly individuals, those who had used benzodiazepines in the past faced an 43-51% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

Sleeping pills aren’t the only treatment for insomnia

They may be a common solution for many, but you don’t need to be turning to sleeping pills if you’re struggling to get your eight hours of sleep. 

Restless legs
Photo by Shane on Unsplash

If you’re struggling with getting enough sleep, then try this easy and effective nighttime routine courtesy of Dr. Yashica Khalawan, a South African-based general practitioner.

  • Eat dinner 3 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid the foods mentioned.
  • 1 hour before bedtime, switch off all devices. Limit liquid intake to avoid bathroom trips.
  • Listen to relaxing music and take a warm bath/shower. The cooling of body temperature helps signal sleep.
  • Create an environment that supports sleep:
    • Room temp 68 degrees Fahrenheit
    • Darken the room
    • Sound machine to block out outside noise
    • Invest in a mattress and pillow that support the alignment of the spine
  • During the night, avoid checking the time, as this increases anxiety about sleep.

Want to know more?

Getting enough sleep isn’t the only way you can mitigate your risk for dementia. According to research, daily habits like doing chores and socializing can help protect against dementia.

MAIN IMAGE CREDIT: Andisheh A on Unsplash

References

Billioti de Gage, S., Moride, Y., Ducruet, T., Kurth, T., Verdoux, H., Tournier, M., Pariente, A., & Bégaud, B. (2014). Benzodiazepine use and risk of Alzheimer’s disease: case-control study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.)349, g5205. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g5205

Leng, Y., Stone, K. L., & Yaffe, K. (2023). Race Differences in the Association Between Sleep Medication Use and Risk of Dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD91(3), 1133–1139. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-221006

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Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba is a journalist graduate and writer, specializing in health, beauty, and wellness. She also has a passion for poetry, equality, and natural hair. Identifiable by either her large afro or colorful locks, Pie aspires to provide the latest information on how one can adopt a healthy lifestyle and leave a more equitable society behind.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.