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More than a third of over-65s take drugs to sleep

More than a third of Americans over the age of 65 take a pill to fall asleep, according to results from a new national poll. 

The survey by the University of Michigan revealed nearly half (46 percent) of older adults have issues with sleep, due to needing the bathroom, or being plagued by stress.

The figures are concerned given research which shows poor sleep increases the risk of depression, memory issues, risk of falls, and even heart conditions. 

But the researchers warned they are particularly concerned by the high rate of older people taking medication to remedy the problem – usually without consulting a doctor. 

Researchers warn they are particularly concerned by the high rate of older people taking medication to remedy the problem – usually without consulting a doctor (file image) 

Half believe – incorrectly – that sleep problems just come naturally with age, and that they needn’t bother medical professionals with such concerns. 

‘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,’ says poll director Dr Preeti Malani, an expert in geriatric medicine. 

‘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,’ she continues. 


In the survey, 14 percent of the poll respondents said they regularly took one of the following: 

  • a prescription sleep medication 
  • a prescription pain medication 
  • over-the-counter sleep aid
  • herbal supplement

Another 23 percent took one of these options occasionally. 

Most of the occasional users said they chose over-the-counter sleep aids.

‘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.’ 

The poll results are based on answers from a nationally representative sample of 1,065 people ages 65 to 80, who answered a wide range of questions online. Questions were written, and data interpreted and compiled, by the IHPI team.

In all, 46 percent of those polled had trouble falling asleep one or more nights a week. Fifteen percent of the poll respondents said they had trouble falling asleep three or more nights a week.

Other health conditions can contribute to sleep difficulties. 

Twenty-three percent of poll respondents who had trouble sleeping said it was because of pain. And 40 percent of those with frequent sleep problems said their overall health was fair or poor. Other reasons for sleep troubles included having to get up to use the bathroom at night, and worry or stress.

Insomnia and other irregular sleep patterns can interfere with daytime functioning, and are associated with memory issues, depression and an increased risk of falls and accidents. Even so, many said they didn’t see sleep issues as a health problem – in fact, this belief was the most common reason that poll respondents said they didn’t talk to their doctor about sleep.

This also highlights the need for doctors to ask their older patients about their sleep habits and what they’re doing to address any issues they may be having

‘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,’ says Alison Bryant, Ph.D., 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.’ 

While over-the-counter sleep aids can be purchased without a doctor’s guidance or prescription, they still carry health risks for older people, Malani warns.

Most of them contain diphenhydramine, an antihistamine that can cause side effects such as confusion, urinary retention and constipation.

Among those with sleep problems who took pills occasionally to help them sleep, over-the-counter remedies were the most common choice.

But among those with frequent sleep issues who took something on a regular basis to try to sleep, prescription sleep medications were the most common option, with 17 percent reporting use.

Use of melatonin and other herbal remedies may be perceived as safer, but less is known about their potential side effects and they are not subject to the FDA’s approval process for medications, Malani said.

Anything that drives a person to buy an over-the-counter or herbal remedy regularly is a medical concern, she adds.