A prime suspect just so happens to be something that's supposed to help: prescription sleep aids. "You get benefits early on, but if you continue to use them long-term you can adapt to them, they're less effective and can interfere with sleep," according to Dr. Lawrence Epstein, an instructor at Harvard Medical School. He adds:
Some people feel it's easier to take a pill than to try other methods to treat insomnia, and many physicians continue giving them prescriptions because they aren't trained in sleep medicine or they feel pressured to help their patients get sleep immediately.
- Sleeping pills have limited effectiveness.
- All carry potential risks.
- None have been tested for long-term safety, which is why most of the pills have been approved for short-term use only.
- Many also cause lingering daytime sleepiness or fatigue by reducing the time you spend in deep, restorative sleep.
- Long-term use can cause strange behaviors while the brain is still asleep: walking, binge eating, or taking the car out for a drive.
- The FDA now requires the makers of Ambien and similar products to lower their dosages, based on studies suggesting links to higher risk of injury from morning drowsiness.
- Older people (aged 64-74) were four times more likely to wake up throughout the night than younger people (ages 21-30), according to a recent study.
- As people age, they experience less time sleeping and in the sleep stage associated with dreaming (REM --rapid eye movement).
- Elderly people do not recover from sleep deprivation as quickly as younger people.
Among the over-the-counter sleep aids, probably the most frequently used is the antihistamine diphenhydramine (Benydryl), an ingredient in many sleep aids labeled "PM," like the one I used (and abused) for years: Tylenol PM. They are often recommended to older people because of a perception the pills are safe. But the opposite is true. These drugs can cause short-term memory loss.