- Sleep problems in older adults are not part of the natural aging process and needs to be discussed with the doctor.
- One third of those with sleep problems rely on pills.
- Among 14% of those who report sleep troubles, 23 percent took sleeping pills occasionally; most of the occasional users said they chose OTC sleep aids.
Older adults find it difficult to fall asleep and nearly one third of them use medication to help them doze off at night.
To find out more details about sleeping problems in older adults and to know the way they handle it, the National Poll on Healthy Aging was done.
‘One in 12 people over age 65 take prescription sleep medications, which carry health risks for older people.’
More than a third have sleep problems but most poll respondents said they hadn't talked to their doctor about their sleep. Half believe incorrectly that sleep problems just come naturally with age.
The poll was conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, and is sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M's academic medical center.
Sleep problems in Older Adults
National guidelines strongly warn against prescription sleep medicine use by people over age 65. But the poll finds that a third of them turn to pills.
Experts warn that those who turn to medications may not realize that prescription, over-the-counter and even "natural" sleep aids carry health risks, especially for older adults, either alone or in combination with other substances.
Most who use such drugs to help them sleep had been taking them for years. Manufacturers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say such drugs are only for short-term use.
Medication To Fall Asleep is Not Advisable
"Although sleep problems can happen at any age and for many reasons, they can't be cured by taking a pill, either prescription, over-the-counter or herbal, no matter what the ads on TV say," says poll director Preeti Malani, M.D., a U-M physician trained in geriatric medicine.
Some of these medications can create big concerns for older adults, from falls and memory issues to confusion and constipation, even if they're sold without a prescription.
Talk about it
: The first advice to those who find it difficult to sleep is to talk bout it to a doctor. Many who have sleep problem don't say it out but those who did, got helpful advice.
Non-medication-based sleep habits
: These are the first choice for improving sleep in older people.
Sleep Problems Linked To Health
- Falling asleep one or more nights a week was a problem for 46 percent of those polled.
- Fifteen percent of the poll respondents said they had trouble falling asleep three or more nights a week.
- Twenty-three percent of poll respondents who had trouble sleeping said it was because of pain.
- Eight percent of older people take prescription sleep medicine regularly or occasionally.
- Among those who report sleep troubles three or more nights a week, 23 percent use a prescription sleep aid.
Irregular sleep patterns can interfere with daytime functioning, and are associated with memory issues, depression and an increased risk of falls and accidents. Many said they didn't see sleep issues as a health problem - in fact, this belief was the most common reason that poll respondents said they didn't talk to their doctor about sleep.
"We know that sleep is a critical factor for overall health as we age, and this new research highlights sleep problems as both a significant health issue for older adults and an under-acknowledged one both by patients and their providers," says Alison Bryant, Ph.D., senior vice president of research for AARP.
Over-The Counter Sleep Aids Has Health Risks
Overall, 14 percent of the poll respondents said they regularly took a prescription sleep medication, prescription pain medication, OTC sleep aid or herbal supplement to help them sleep. Another 23 percent took one of these options occasionally; most of the occasional users said they chose OTC sleep aids.
OTC sleep aids can be purchased without a doctor's guidance or prescription but they still carry health risks for older people. Most of them contain diphenhydramine, an antihistamine that can cause side effects such as confusion, urinary retention and constipation.
Use of melatonin and other herbal remedies may be perceived as safer, but less is known about their potential side effects and they are not subject to the FDA's approval process for medications. But any issue that prompts someone to buy an OTC or herbal remedy on a regular basis is something they should discuss with their doctor.
- Preeti Malani et al., 1 in 3 older adults take something to help them sleep but many don't talk to their doctors, National Poll on Healthy Aging (2017).