If you have trouble sleeping at night, know that you aren’t alone. Older adults have sleep disturbances and sometimes use sleeping pills to get better rest. Although this may be acceptable as an occasional strategy, scientists have linked the regular use of this kind of medication to dementia.
We’ll explore the connection between sleep medications and dementia, including how they affect your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, we’ll also share tips on how to get a better night’s rest without medication.
At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, research was presented that indicated that certain groups of people may be at a higher risk of dementia if they take sleep medication. Studying people who took sleep medications five to 30 times monthly, white people are 79% more likely to develop dementia than black people. For occasional users, no difference was found. When comparing data between men and women in this study, no differences were found based on gender.
In another study that compared the risk of Alzheimer’s in older adults by gender, there was a higher risk found in men when sleeping medications were used. With women, it depended on whether they were experiencing sleep disturbance. If they were, the risk was four times higher for developing dementia when taking sleep medications; if they used those medications but didn’t have disturbances in sleep, they actually displayed a reduced risk in developing Alzheimer’s.
According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), snoring is the most common cause of sleep disruption — a problem for 90 million adults in the United States. Loud snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea where breathing stops for as long as a minute with the person’s oxygen levels dropping in the blood.
Interpreting these results aren’t as straightforward as being able to say whether using sleep medications can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. According to one expert, they might. The sleep disturbances themselves could be the driving factor in impacting cognitive function, or other factors might be contributing to the increased risk of developing dementia.
Meanwhile, an article in AARP points out how researchers “didn't distinguish between types of sleeping aids, which may have different effects on the brain.” So different types could create a different degree of risk of developing dementia in older adults.
Why Older Adults Are More at Risk
As people age, their ability to process medication changes. According to a Harvard publication, drugs are cleared out of the kidneys and liver more slowly, which keeps them in the bloodstream for a longer amount of time. Older people typically lose muscle and gain fat as they age, which changes how medications, including sleep aids, are processed.
Sleeping aids are stored in body fat which means that their impact can have an effect for days, especially in people who have more body fat. Finally, because older people often take more medications — both prescription and over the counter — drugs can interact in ways that “suppress or enhance the effects of the others.”
How to Get Regular Sleep
To get regular sleep without the use of medications, NSF says it can help to limit naps and cut back on caffeine consumption. Additional tips to improve sleeping patterns include:
- Using low-watt bulbs at night to naturally encourage melatonin.
- Turning off your computer and television at least an hour before bedtime.
- Avoiding reading from a device that’s backlit.
- Keeping your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark.
- Wearing a sleep mask and using earplugs or a sound machine can help.
- Maintaining regular sleep patterns, going to bed and waking at consistent times, even on the weekends.
- Enjoying a bath, playing relaxing music or practicing deep breathing or meditation just before bedtime.
If you have concerns about your ability to get regular sleep, consult your doctor and share specifics about sleep problems you’re experiencing.