Older Adults and Sleeping Pills: An Unsafe Combination?

By Marygrace Taylor

Sleeping pills can be a godsend for many suffering from temporary insomnia. But for older adults, who often report having difficulty sleeping, the meds might end up doing more harm than good.

Many prescription and over-the-counter sleeping aids can more than double the risk of falls and hip fractures, as well as increase the risk of car accidents in seniors, according to the American Geriatrics Society. That’s because older adults tend to be more sensitive to the powerful effects of sleep drugs, which can lead to feelings of fogginess and confusion. “They make you feel almost a little drunk,” said Dr. Barbara Resnick, a gerontology researcher at the University of Maryland and past president of the American Geriatrics Society.

That heightened sensitivity has experts recommending that seniors who have difficulty sleeping try non-drug treatments before popping pills. “Sleeping pills should absolutely, positively be a last resort,” Resnick said.

Fortunately, there are also plenty of medication-free ways to cope with a temporary bout of can’t-sleep-itis. If you have or an elderly adult you know has trouble dozing off, consider these simple yet effective solutions:

  • Stay active. Research shows that exercisers tend to sleep better than sedentary folk.
  • Stick to a routine. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can help keep the body’s sleep-wake cycle in sync, helping you feel tired at bedtime.
  • Eat light at night. Try to eat dinner at least three hours before bed. Heavy fare before bed can tax the digestive system, making it tougher to nod off.
  • Limit coffee and alcohol. Caffeine can stay in your system for hours, so switch to a non-caffeinated drink after 3 p.m. Steer clear of alcohol at night, too, which can make it more difficult to stay asleep.
  • Create a pro-sleep environment. Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet, and use your bed only for sleeping and sex.
  • Choose reading over screen time. Read a book instead of watching TV or surfing the web. Exposure to bright lights from TVs or computers before bed can keep you up.
  • Be patient. Modifying your behavior to improve sleep can take time. “It can be hard to change, but the benefit is well worth it,” said Resnick.