Ann Arbor, MI—Sleep problems are epidemic in older Americans, and even though clinical guidelines warn against prescription sleep medications in patients aged older than age 65 years, a substantial percentage of them often use drugs to help nod off.

That’s according to results of the National Poll on Healthy Aging, which also found that many of respondents had never discussed sleep issues with their physicians. A third of respondents reported sleep problems, yet half said they thought trouble dozing off was just a natural consequence of aging.

The poll was sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine and conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

The survey also identified a lack of understanding of the risks of prescription, OTC, and so-called “natural” sleep aids, finding that 8% use prescription sleep medicine regularly or occasionally. 

Nearly one quarter of those reporting interrupted sleep three or more nights a week said they used a sleep aid, and many of them had been doing so for years—even though the drugs usually only have FDA approval for short-term use.

“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,” explained poll director Preeti Malani, MD. “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.

“The first step for anyone having trouble sleeping on a regular basis should be to talk to a doctor about it,” Malani added. “Our poll shows that nearly two-thirds of those who did so got helpful advice—but a large percentage of those with sleep problems simply weren’t talking about it.”

Almost half, 46%, of the older Americans polled reported that they had trouble falling asleep one or more nights a week, with 15% saying that sleeplessness plagued them three or more nights a week.

Reasons provided for sleep problems included:
• Pain, noted by 23%
• Overall health being only fair or poor, 40%
• Frequent bathroom visits, worry, and stress also were cited.

Researchers warned that lack of sleep may worsen memory issues and depression, while increasing the risk of falls and accidents. 

“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 underacknowledged one both by patients and their providers,” said Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP. “We need to help people understand that lack of sleep is not just a natural part of aging.”

The researchers polled a nationally representative online sample of 1,065 people ages 65 to 80 years, who answered a range of questions online. Laptops and Internet access were provided to poll respondents who did not already have it. 

« Click here to return to Weekly News Update.