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Sleeping Pills for Seniors: Healthy or A Hazard?
Marissa Salvesen

By: Marissa Salvesen on September 11th, 2014

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Sleeping Pills for Seniors: Healthy or A Hazard?

assisted living  |  caregiver tips  |  health tips for seniors  |  Aging & Caregiving

sleeping-pillsSleep can be elusive at any stage of life, but seniors are commonly afflicted by sleep problems, such as insomnia and night waking.

While older adults require 30 to 60 minutes less sleep than others, they also wake up more -- as many as four times a night for the average 70 year old.

While sleeping pills may seem like a simple solution for sleep issues, they can also put your aging loved one at risk.

What’s Wrong With Sleeping Pills?

When taken under a doctor’s advisement, prescription sleeping pills can be safe. Unfortunately, they are often misused. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that sleeping pill use be limited to 2-4 non-consecutive days per week. As alcohol can exacerbate the effects of sleeping pills, drinking should not be combined with sleeping pills.

Just how problematic are sleeping pills? Sedative-hypnotic sleep medications, such as Klonopin, Xanax, Ativan and Valium, were recently included in the American Geriatrics Society's campaign of “Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question.” According to current research, increased incidences of falls and fractures, automobile accidents and even emergency room visits in older Americans are connected with sedative-hypnotics, as well as nonbenzodiazepine, a “Z-drug" more commonly known as Ambien.*

The FDA has requested that these sleep meds include stronger warnings on their labels in order to raise consumer awareness about the side effects and risks, which can include a number of dangerous sleep-related behaviors as well as serious allergic reactions. And the danger is not just while patients are under the immediate influence of sleeping pills; the FDA also warns about “next morning impairment.”

Promoting Healthy Sleep

Rather than reaching for the sleeping pills, consider healthy lifestyle changes known to promote more fulfilling sleep. Begin by designating a quiet, dark, cool space just for sleeping. Avoid large or spicy evening meals as well as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and other stimulants. Sticking to a schedule is also helpful: go to bed and rise at the same time every day, skipping naps to avoid trouble falling asleep at bedtime. Exercise, in addition to its many other benefits, and exposure to sunlight have also been linked to improved sleep.

If your aging loved one doesn't see improved sleep after making the recommended lifestyle changes, ask your healthcare provider to perform a medical exam. Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain, stimulant use (including caffeine), night time urination, lack of activity, neurological conditions, depression, certain medications, and changes to the body’s natural time clock can all contribute to or cause poor sleeping patterns. In most cases, treating these underlying conditions can yield better sleep. A physician can also make recommendations for weaning from sleeping pills, if your loved one has already become dependent on them.

Ultimately sleeping pills do not provide a treatment for sleep issues; they simply mask them. By addressing the underlying issues, you can promote healthy sleep for your loved one -- a critical part of physical and emotional wellness at any age.

Key Takeaways

  • While sleep issues may commonly affect the elderly, they don’t have to be a fact of life.
  • Sleeping pills are not only a short-term solution, but can also be dangerous.
  • Healthy lifestyle changes can promote improved quality of sleep.
  • A healthcare professional can help determine any medical issues which may be interfering with healthy sleeping patterns.


About Marissa Salvesen

My journey into the world of senior living began when I started working for United Methodist Homes in 2010. Starting as an Activities Director at one of our-winning assisted and independent living communities and then transitioning to Marketing and Promotions Manager for UMH, I now work as the Manager of Mission Development, fostering the Mission and Values of our organization. I love sharing stories about the many ways we build meaningful relationships and enrich the lives of those we serve, and am proud to be part of building UMH’s 140-year legacy of caring. Wondering what makes our communities such special places to live and work? Connect with me and find out!

Our Blog is a 2016 Platinum Generations Award Winner! The Generations Award is an annual international competition for excellence in senior marketing recognizing professionals who have communicated to the 50+ Mature Markets.