Millions of Americans say they regularly turn to medication to help them fall or stay asleep, a practice experts say can be dangerous to their health. A new study found that about 8% of US adults reported taking sleep medication every day or most days, with use more common among women, who are older or have have a lower income level.
The data brief, released by the US National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health Statistics, analyzed sleep medication use data from more than 30,549 American adults collected by the National Health Interview Survey in 2020.
The researchers defined sleep medication use as taking any medication, whether prescription or over-the-counter, to help fall or stay asleep most days or every day in the past 30 days.
They found that women were more likely to take sleeping pills than men across all age, race and ethnicity, and income groups. Sleep medication use was also higher among older adults, with 11.9% of those 65 and over saying they use a sleep aid every night or most nights.
Sleep medication use fell as household income rose, from 10% among adults below the federal poverty level to 8.2% among those making twice or more the federal poverty level.
“Previous research has found similar relationships,” noted study co-author Lindsey Black, a researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics. “This report is useful in documenting the most recent prevalence estimates for sleep medication use in adults and confirming that these differences persist.”
Dr Nishi Bhopal, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine doctor, says these findings are due to a number of reasons.
“In women, sleep problems are often misdiagnosed. I see this in my clinical practice, where women can be diagnosed with insomnia when they have sleep apnea, because sleep apnea can be very different in women than in men,” said Bhopal, who he was involved in the new story. study.
Also of concern to Bhopal was that the highest use of sleep meds, which are not generally recommended, was among older adults.
“Sleeping pills have many side effects, and older adults are more likely to suffer the negative effects of these medications. These include things like confusion, the risk of falling, breaking bones, and even being at a higher risk of cognitive issues like dementia. And so the higher rate of use in this population is concerning.”
She added that “it is striking, but not surprising” that the use of sleeping pills has increased with reduced income. Other research found that people with higher rates of stress and financial debt have more sleep problems and are more likely to be prescribed sleep medications.
Experts say sleeping medications can be helpful tools when used for their intended purpose. They can be useful for people going through acute stressors that make it difficult to sleep, such as divorce, job loss or grief.
“It’s really important that we support patients as best we can, because insomnia can lead to depression and anxiety,” Bhopal said. “So sleeping pills can be very useful in that context, but they are not recommended for more than two weeks.”
Using sleep medication every day can lead to problems such as tolerance, where the body physically requires a higher dose of the medication to have an effect, or dependence, leading to withdrawal symptoms such as seizures as a result of stopping the medication. People may also have rebound insomnia, which means they cannot sleep without the medication.
Like lack of sleep itself, consistent use of sleep medications can have serious health consequences.
Research found that elderly people taking sedative-hypnotic drugs have a five times higher risk of memory and concentration problems and a fourfold higher risk of daytime fatigue and sleepiness, which can lead to poor work performance or a higher risk of car accidents.
Bhopal recommends using sleeping medications “for the shortest period of time, at the minimum doses necessary. We will try to use them from time to time for support as we work on good behavior strategies and address the other issues that contribute to their sleep problems,” she said.
These behavioral strategies include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, getting regular exercise, managing stress during the day and limiting caffeine and alcohol in the evening.
For those who still have trouble sleeping, Bhopal says cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia may help.
“CBTI is the gold standard first-line treatment for chronic insomnia. It is much more than sleep hygiene. It addresses the issues that cause insomnia, and helps people reframe their thinking about sleep, and also gives them very practical tools to help restore their natural sleep-wake cycle.”
If you are constantly dealing with sleep problems, talk to your doctor to identify possible root causes.
“I think the biggest thing is to not be afraid to talk to your doctor about your sleep problems,” Bhopal said, “and ask about cognitive behavioral insomnia, ask about sleep apnea, ask about restless leg syndrome if you think. you have any of those conditions.”