Seniors Struggle with Sleep

A recent poll of 1,065 of the nation’s seniors found that nearly half of individuals between the ages of 65 and 80 in the United States report sleep problems. A staggering 1 in 3 said they regularly take something to help them sleep. Over half of those polled believe that sleep difficulties are a normal part of aging.

The “National Poll on Health Aging,” was sponsored in part by the University of Michigan and AARP.  Researchers are hoping that the survey can be used to educate both patients and doctors about the seriousness of persistent unreported sleep problems.

The Poll found that in a typical week, 46% of healthy adults reported that they regularly have trouble falling asleep and older adults who described their health as fair or poor were more likely to report trouble falling asleep. Respondents attributed their sleep troubles to having to use the bathroom, worry, stress and pain. However 41% said they were unsure of the cause of their sleep problems.

Thirty-six percent reported using some type of medication to help with sleep including prescription sleep medications, over-the-counter (OTC) medications promoted as nighttime formulations; herbal and natural sleep aids (like melatonin) or prescription pain medications. Some 14% said they used at least one of these medications regularly.

More than half of respondents to the Poll believed that poor sleep is a normal part of aging and very few reported talking to their doctors about how to improve their sleep. In fact, the most common reason cited for not addressing their sleep concerns with their doctors was that they didn’t think of sleep as a health issue.

Lead study author, Dr. Preeti Malani, said “Although sleep patterns can change with age—for example going to bed earlier and waking up earlier—poor sleep is not a normal part of aging. Poor sleep can negatively affect overall health and quality of life. At times, sleep problems may signal a more serious health issue.”

Studies have shown that extended use of medications for sleep (either prescription or OTC) can be detrimental to health. Among other adverse effects, long-term use of these medications can impair memory and increase the risk of falls.

A lot of older Americans could be in trouble. Among poll respondents who reported taking prescription sleep medications, the majority had been taking these for three or more years. And with 5% of respondents reporting regular use of prescription sleep medications; the overall number of older adults at risk of adverse effects is alarming.

Although educational campaigns directed toward older adults have helped raise awareness of these safety concerns, the current results suggest there is still substantial OTC use and thus the potential for serious adverse effects.

Older adults need to realize that sleep is an important health issue and that they should talk to their doctors about sleep-related concerns.

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