Third of elderly Americans take sleeping pills amid 'catastrophic' and deadly insomnia epidemic

'We need to help people understand that lack of sleep is not a natural part of ageing'

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 27 September 2017 11:40 BST
Chronic insomnia is causing potentially fatal diseases such as cancer, diabetes, stroke and Alzheimer’s
Chronic insomnia is causing potentially fatal diseases such as cancer, diabetes, stroke and Alzheimer’s

More than a third of older adults in the United States are taking pills to help them sleep, according to new research, amid a deadly epidemic of insomnia in modern society.

The US National Poll on Healthy Ageing, which spoke to more than 1,000 people aged 65 to 80, found that 14 per cent regularly took prescription sleep medication, prescription pain medication and over-the-counter sleep aid or herbal supplements – and 23 per cent did so occasionally.

Nearly half said they had trouble falling asleep at least one night a week, while 15 per cent reported problems three or more nights a week.

The survey’s results came after a leading sleep scientist, Professor Matthew Walker, warned that a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” was causing a host of potentially fatal diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and poor mental health.

He said an undervaluing of the importance of sleep by employers, politicians and society in general was partly responsible for the extent of the problem, along with other factors like computers, smartphones, alcohol and caffeine.

Dr Preeti Malani of Michigan University, who led the new survey, said many elderly people were not seeking advice from doctors partly because they wrongly thought sleeplessness was a natural part of the ageing process.

She stressed that taking some kind of pill was not a long-term solution and could be dangerous.

“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,” Dr Malani said.

“Some of these medications [prescription or non-prescription] can create big concerns for older adults: from falls and memory issues, to confusion and constipation.

“The first step for anyone having trouble sleeping on a regular basis should be to talk to a doctor about it.

“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.”

23 per cent of respondents who had trouble sleeping said it was because of pain. 40 per cent of those with frequent sleep problems said their overall health was fair or poor. Getting up to use the toilet at night, worry and stress were given as other reasons for sleep problems.

Dr Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), stressed the importance of sleep.

“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 under-acknowledged one both by patients and their providers,” she said.

“We need to help people understand that lack of sleep is not just a natural part of ageing.”

The American Geriatrics Society has warned against the use of prescription sleep drugs containing any type of benzodiazepine drug for insomnia, agitation or delirium.

Dr Malani added that most over-the-counter sleep aids contain diphenhydramine: an antihistamine that can cause side effects such as confusion, urinary retention and constipation.

A full report of the findings is available at

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