Sleeping pills are helpful for people who are having trouble resting or getting some shut-eye. But new research has shown that the medication also has its downside — one that could force users to stop taking it.

Scientists recently found that common sleeping pills could significantly increase the risk of dementia. In their study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease on Wednesday, they reported an alarming 79% risk increase.

The researchers from the University of California-San Francisco conducted the study to understand the effect of sleeping pills on cognition in older adults. They wanted to determine the association between sleep medication use and incident dementia over 15 years among users.

The researchers followed 3,068 older adults (42% Black and 58% white) without dementia living outside of nursing homes but enrolled in the Health, Aging and Body Composition study for nine years. The average age of the participants was 74.

In the course of the study, 20% of the participants developed dementia. Upon analyzing the data, the team found that the white participants who “often” or “almost always” used sleeping pills to aid their rest were 79% more likely to develop dementia than those who did not take the sleeping medication.

Though the research team found a similar likelihood of developing dementia in Black participants, they did not focus on this since sleeping pill consumption among them was markedly low.

“Differences may be attributed to socio-economic status. Black participants who have access to sleep medications might be a select group with high socio-economic status and, thus, greater cognitive reserve, making them less susceptible to dementia. It’s also possible that some sleep medications were associated with a higher risk of dementia than others,” first author Yue Leng, Ph.D., of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said in the school’s news release.

The white participants were found to be three times more likely than their Black counterparts to take sleeping pills often — about five to 15 times a month.

The sleeping pills that the participants used included the sedative-hypnotic Ambien, the benzodiazepines Halcion, Dalmane and Restoril, as well as the antidepressants Desyrel and Oleptro.

Since the findings only applied to white people, the researchers said there could be other driving factors for cognitive decline among the general population.

“Frequent sleep medication use was associated with an increased risk of dementia in white older adults. Further research is needed to determine underlying mechanisms,” the research team concluded.

Based on the latest figures available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, around 8.4% of American adults took sleep medication either every day or most days per month in 2020. Women (10.2%) were found to be more likely to take sleeping pills than men (6.6%).

Meanwhile, current estimates that about 5.8 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Of the figure, around 5.6 million cases account for people aged 65 and older, as per the CDC.

Sleeping Pills
Experts say that sleep medications, often classified as sedative-hypnotics, should only be used to deal with short-term insomnia. Cognitive behavioral therapy may work better for long-term sleep problems. Pixabay