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Sleep Medications and Its Association With Dementia Risk

Sleep is an essential part of our lives. It is recommended by health experts that we get enough hours of sleep every day to fulfill necessary tasks and stay energetic. Many, however, struggle to fall asleep — and sometimes they reach for sleep medications.

The CDC revealed approximately 8.4 percent of adults in the U.S. use sleep medications to help them fall asleep. The number increases to 11.9 percent for those over the age of 65. With aging often comes sleep complications, including difficulty falling asleep, fewer hours of sleep, and diminished rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep.

According to a study by the University of California, San Francisco, published by the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers proposed that sleep medications may bring unfavorable results. "We’ve known for a while that certain sleep medications like benzodiazepines are associated with an increased risk of dementia. This is novel research in a diverse cohort followed longitudinally," said Alzheimer’s Association director of scientific engagement Percy Griffin, Ph.D.

How was the study conducted?

The research took 3,068 individuals from the Health, Aging, and Body Composition (Health ABC) study in Memphis, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, within the age range of 70 to 79, with no previous diagnosis of dementia.

In the study, which began in 1997 and 1998, participants were asked to record any sleep medications they took, and if so, how often. They could choose from five options: never, rarely (one or fewer per month), sometimes ( two to four per month), often (five to 15 per month), or almost always (16 to 30 per month). Participants were given the same question in years three and five to keep records.

Participants that did take sleeping pills were asked to bring the medicine for verification. Among participants, white individuals were three times more likely compared to black participants to utilize some type of sleeping medications often or almost always.

Compared to men, women were almost most likely to take sleep medications regularly. The researchers studied the recorded results and indicated any onset of dementia, alerted by dementia medication prescription, hospitalization due to dementia, or remarkably decreased cognitive function. Generally, throughout 9.2 years of follow-up visits, 617 participants eventually developed dementia.

The study said the results exhibited a strong correlation between persistent usage of sleep medication and dementia for white participants, and no correlation between periodic usage of sleep medications and dementia.

"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."

Despite the link between sleep medications and dementia, study author Yue Leng, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco said sleep medications are not a direct cause of dementia, and there may be other factors that contribute to the development of the disorder.

How many hours of sleep should you get each night?

Recommended hours of sleep vary per age. For teenagers, it is recommended they get at least eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. For adults, the CDC recommends at least seven hours of sleep each day. If you have difficulty falling asleep, here are some techniques recommended by the CDC:

  • Make a bedtime schedule, such as bedtime and wake-up time.
  • Create a suitable environment for sleep, such as an adequate temperature.
  • Try not to use electronic devices such as phones or computers before bed.
  • Exercising in the daytime can help with sleeping at night.


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