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Pills Not the Best Choice for Sleepless Seniors

Seniors may want to think twice before taking a sleeping pill to help them sleep through the night. While these pills can help you fall asleep and stay asleep, in the elderly they cause pronounced daytime side effects, including memory problems and falls.

"Older people are more sensitive to the side effects of sleeping pills," says Dr. Daniel Kripke, co-director of sleep research at the Scripps Clinic Sleep Center in San Diego.

For the 60 million Americans who suffer from insomnia, sleeping pills like Ambien and Lunesta have become increasingly popular. Since the rate of insomnia tends to increase with age, seniors, too, have been turning to these drugs for help. However, several studies have shown that the side effects and drowsiness caused by sleeping pills tend to linger longer for seniors—with major consequences.

Researchers from the University of Toronto have recently found that people over the age of 60 are almost five times more likely to have a memory or cognitive problem after using sleeping pills. Additionally, seniors who use sleeping pills are almost three times more likely to suffer a fall and four times more likely to report feeling tired during the day.

Part of the trouble, says Kripke, is that as people age, their metabolism slows down and the body processes drugs more slowly. This can cause a sleeping pill that is designed to last only overnight to remain in the body for much longer in an older person. Additionally, since elderly people are, in general, more frail, falls caused by grogginess after taking a sleeping pill can lead to bigger problems, like broken bones.

Getting Some Rest

As people age, they tend to need less sleep. While teens may be able to stay in bed for hours on end, adults generally need only seven or eight hours of sleep to feel rested. After the age of 60, the number of sleep hours may decrease even more.

"Not all people need eight hours of sleep," reminds Kripke, who explains that many seniors who seek out sleeping pills don't have a sleep disorder at all and are simply overly-concerned by shorter nights of sleep. "There are two kinds of older people," he says. "Those that wake up at night and worry, and those that wake up and don't worry."

Therefore, before reaching for a prescription bottle, Kripke reminds seniors that there are other options to help you sleep through the night, cut down on the frustration of early waking and feel rested during the day.

First, many seniors spend too much time in bed. Often, simply going to bed a little later helps seniors stay asleep through the night. Also, if you wake up in the middle of the night and don't feel like you're going to fall asleep again, "get out of bed," says Kripke. He suggests moving into another room to read a book or watch television until you feel tired again.

If sleeping problems linger or are caused by pain or shortness of breath, be sure to see a doctor. It is possible that a more serious problem, like sleep apnea, underlies your insomnia.

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