DEAR DOCTORS: I am a 57-year-old man, and ever since the pandemic started, I have had trouble getting enough sleep. I sometimes use a sleep medication, and it has been helpful. But I've been reading that using sleep meds can increase your risk of developing dementia. Is this true?
DEAR READER: When it comes to not getting enough sleep each night, you are far from alone. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one-third of adults in the United States share your struggle.
It's not all that surprising, then, to learn that more than 26 million people over the age of 18 use sleep medications at least a few times each month. That's more than 8% of the population. For older adults, the usage is higher -- close to 12%. This makes any possible link between sleep medications and dementia risk an important consideration.
The question of whether sleep medications can affect cognition has been an area of inquiry for several years. Although the research appears to draw a connection between the heavy use of sleep medications and an increase in dementia risk, the studies come with a big caveat. A study published in 2020 examined eight years of health data collected from 6,300 adults over the age of 65. The researchers found that those who regularly used sleep medications had an increased risk of developing dementia. However, problems with sleep can often be an early symptom of dementia. That made it impossible to say for sure if the use of sleep medications played a role in the development of dementia, or if their use was merely highlighting the onset of the condition.
Another study, published earlier this year, looked at more than 3,000 men and women with an average age of 74. None of them had been diagnosed with dementia. Over the course of 15 years, 20% of the participants developed dementia. Of those who reported frequent or nightly use of medications, a measurable increase in dementia risk was seen.
It's important to note that the unanswered question of the previous study persists. That is, whether the sleep medications themselves were linked to dementia, or if they served to highlight the initial symptoms of the early stages of dementia. The medications most associated with greater risk of dementia in both studies are a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines. Researchers suspect that these medications may adversely affect chemicals in the brain that play a role in learning and memory. More research is needed to refine the results of these studies. Meanwhile, neither of the studies found a connection between the occasional use of sleep medications and an effect on dementia risk.
Living with a sleep deficit doesn't just leave you feeling tired and groggy the next day; it can also play a role in developing health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity and depression. It would be wise for you to talk about your sleep difficulties and use of sleep medications with your healthcare provider. Universal Features Syndicate
Dr Eve Glazier is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Dr Elizabeth Ko is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.