According to new research from the University of California, San Francisco, these drugs may be doing more harm than benefit for some people.
The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, concluded that using sleep medicine frequently raises the risk of dementia, particularly in white people.
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Types of Sleep Medication
The study examined the usage of a variety of sleep medications, ranging from over-the-counter antihistamines to prescription medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and benzodiazepines.
The researchers gathered a random sample of 3,068 Black and white men and women aged 70 to 79, none of whom had been diagnosed with dementia. The individuals came from the Health, Aging, and Body Composition (Health ABC) study, which was conducted in Memphis, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Participants were asked whether they took any sleep medicines at the start of the trial (1997-98). Researchers also asked how many times each month individuals took these medications: never, seldom (1 or fewer times), occasionally (2-4), frequently (5-15), or virtually always (16-30). In years 3 and 5, they were asked the same question.
The researchers confirmed which medications were being used by asking participants to bring them into the clinic with them when they came in.
Does Ethnicity Influence the Use of Sleep Medicines
White participants were nearly three times more likely than black participants to report using sleep medication frequently or virtually constantly (7.7% vs. 2.7%). They were also more likely to utilize sleep drugs prescribed by a doctor.
Gender Disparity in the Use of Sleep Medicines
Women, both black and white, were the most likely to regularly use sleep medication.
Is There a Link Between Sleep Medicines and Dementia
If a volunteer met any of the following criteria, the researchers reported the onset of dementia:
- A hospitalization record identifying dementia as a primary or secondary diagnosis
- a prescription for dementia medication
- proof of a clinically substantial loss in global cognitive function is required (change of at least 1.5 standard deviations on the race-stratified Modified Mini-Mental State examination).
617 persons (20%) got dementia throughout an average of 9.2 years of follow-up. The hazard ratio (a measure of relative risk) for those taking sleep medication ‘often or almost usually’ was 1.83 for white participants and 1.32 for black individuals.
According to the researchers, this demonstrated a “strong relationship” between the regular use of sleep medicine and dementia among white subjects. They discovered no link between the usage of sleep medicines on occasion and dementia.
Dr. Griffin proposed the following explanation for the lack of a similar correlation 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.”
Dr. Yue Leng of the University of California, San Francisco, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, emphasized that their findings did not establish that sleep medicines cause dementia, telling Medical News Today, “We need to be careful with implying ‘causality.’ It may not be sleep meds itself that increased the risk of dementia, but frequent sleep [medications] use could be an indicator of something else, e.g. depression, that also contribute to increased dementia risk.”
Improving Sleep without the Help of Sleep Medicines
A good night’s sleep is critical for both physical and mental well-being. The CDC recommends that persons aged 18-60 obtain at least 7 hours of sleep per night and suggests the following methods to help them do this:
- Every day, including weekends, go to bed and get up at the same hour.
- Make certain that your bedroom is quiet, dark, peaceful, and at a reasonable temperature.
- Remove all electrical devices from the bedroom, including TVs, computers, and phones.
- Before going to bed, avoid heavy meals and beverages containing caffeine or alcohol.
- Do not smoke.
- Get some exercise during the day to help you sleep better at night.
Melatonin supplements may be beneficial to some people, and when used in moderation, experts believe they are safe.
According to research, a lack of sleep in middle age may increase the risk of dementia, thus we should all practice appropriate sleep habits.
Dr. Griffin also offered the following advise to anyone concerned about the effects of sleep medicines.
“While this [finding] is interesting, it is worth mentioning that these are association studies. More work is needed to find cause and effect. This research should not be cause for alarm, but rather an opportunity for individuals to discuss their medications and sleep hygiene with their doctor,” he said.
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