It’s a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age. In fact, older adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep nightly, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Unfortunately, many of them fall far short of this goal due to issues ranging from sleep apnea to respiratory problems. This has resulted in a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” linked with a multitude of detrimental health outcomes, according to sleep scientist Matthew Walker. Think sleeping pills are a simple fix? Think again.
Here’s a closer look at why the American Geriatrics Society says that sleeping pills aren’t usually the best solution for insomnia, along with tips aimed at helping caregivers help their aging loved ones sleep better.
For additional information, watch Sleep Problems in the Elderly to learn more about sleep issues and seniors.
Sleep and Seniors
As many as a third of adults age 65 and over don’t get enough sleep, according to a recent University of Michigan poll.
And while many people think poor sleep is a natural part of the aging process, experts say this isn’t the case. Preeti Malani, M.D., chief health officer and professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, told Consumer Reports, “If older adults believe that these changes are a normal, inevitable part of aging, they may not think of it as something to discuss with their doctor. And not discussing it can potentially lead to health issues (related to sleep) not being identified and managed.”
Specifically, says Malani, issues like anxiety, depression, restless legs syndrome, and heart disease can be to blame for poor sleep. At the same time, sleep deprivation can lead to a number of health issues, such as accidents, impaired cognition, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even heart failure.
The Sleeping Pill “Solution”
Sleeping pills seem like an easy solution, which may explain why more than a third of older adults who report having trouble sleeping take over-the-counter aids, prescription drugs, supplements, and other sleep medications in an attempt to get in their zzz’s. After all, many over-the-counter medications are touted as “non-habit forming,” while others may be doctor-prescribed. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are safe. In fact, the American Geriatrics Society reveals that there are more effective and safer ways to combat sleep problems.
So what's the problem with sleeping pills? For starters, while many medications are marketed as promoting a restful night’s sleep, research indicates that this is not necessarily the case. And even for people who do manage to sleep longer or better with medication, the side effects can be serious—and even deadly. Why? Because prescription sleeping pills, also known as “sedative-hypnotics” and “tranquilizers,” are accompanied by special risks in seniors. Specifically, these drugs stay in the bodies of older adults longer while simultaneously increasing the risk of other complications, such as trips and falls and car accidents.
Meanwhile, over-the-counter meds may have bothersome side effects for seniors, including everything from confusion to constipation.
Safe Sleep for Seniors
We’ve established that lack of sleep isn’t good for senior health. We’ve also established that sleeping pills aren’t advised by medical experts. Which begs the question: How can caregivers help aging loved ones get the sleep they need?
The first step is a thorough medical exam. A doctor may be able to help identify issues causing sleep problems, as well as to make suggestions for natural treatments. Other sleep hygiene practices include setting a consistent schedule for sleeping and waking every day, avoiding coffee, limiting alcohol, and creating a dark, cool “sleep zone.” Exercising and more exposure to sunlight can also help promote better sleep.
If your aging loved one suffers from chronic insomnia despite lifestyle changes, talk to your aging loved one’s healthcare team about CBT, AKA Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—a National Institute of Health-approved method for treating insomnia.
This isn’t to say that sleep meds aren’t the right choice for everyone. If nothing else works and quality of life is being impacted, a physician may recommend sleep meds. However, these are best taken under the direction of a healthcare professional. Caregivers can also play important roles in observing whether or not the drugs are working, and/or if they’re causing any potential side effects.
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