Common sleeping pills may significantly raise the risk of dementia, a study suggests.
People who said they took them ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ were up to 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed than people who answered ‘never’ or ‘rarely’.
But the findings only applied to white people, which the researchers say indicates other lifestyle and socioeconomic factors are at play. For example, there is a chance that insomnia itself is the driving factor for cognitive decline.
The experiment only addressed prescription drugs such as Ambien, not over-the-counter supplements such as melatonin.
However, there is some evidence that melatonin also causes cognitive problems when taken over a long period.
People who took sleeping pills often had a 79 percent increased risk of developing dementia
Prescription sleeping pills like Ambien have become increasingly popular in the US, with roughly 17 million Americans taking them
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately a fifth of adults in the U.S. may be taking medication to fall or stay asleep, the equivalent of around 40 million.
Numerous reports have indicated that the American workforce is chronically underslept, with one in three not getting the recommended minimum seven hours a night.
Sleeping less than that is associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
For the latest study, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, enrolled 3,068 people whose average age was 74 and followed them for an average of nine years.
By the end of the study, more than 20 percent developed dementia.
White participants, who made up 58 percent of the sample pool, were considerably more likely than their black counterparts to take sleeping pills.
And those who took pills ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ had a 79 percent increased risk of developing dementia.
Dr Yue Leng, from the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, said: ‘Differences may be attributed to socioeconomic status.
‘Black participants who have access to sleep medications might be a select group with high socioeconomic 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.’
Study authors asked participants three times: ‘Do you take sleeping pills or other medications to help you sleep?’
Participants had a multiple choice of answers that included: ‘Never’ (zero times per month), ‘Rarely’ (once a month or less), ‘Sometimes’ (two to four times per month), ‘Often’ (five to 15 times per month), or ‘Almost Always’ (16 to 30 times per month).
Study participants reported taking a wide variety of prescribed medications for insomnia, including benzodiazepines, like Halcion, Dalmane and Restoril, the antidepressant trazodone, and so-called Z-drugs, such as Ambien and Lunesta.
Most sleep aids come with a spate of side-effects, many of which can be mild – such as dizziness and prolonged drowsiness. But a habit of taking benzodiazepines and sleep-inducing drugs like Ambien most nights can be habit-forming and result in dependence or addiction.
The findings out of San Francisco, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, are not the first to draw a link between sleeping pills and increased dementia risk.
In 2018, a study carried out by the University of Eastern Finland found that, for patients taking benzodiazepines or Z-drugs, the risk of Alzheimer’s increased by around six percent.
In 2014, A team of researchers from France and Canada found a link between benzodiazepines and Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia. People who had taken a benzodiazepine for three months or less had about the same dementia risk as those who had never taken one.
Meanwhile, taking a benzo for three to six months raised the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 32 percent, and taking it for more than six months boosted the risk by 84 percent.
Dr Leng urged people to think twice before reaching for a pill and instead start with a sleep test and cognitive behavioral therapy.
‘If medication is to be used, melatonin might be a safer option, but we need more evidence to understand its long-term impact on health,’ Dr Leng said.
Ironically, while sleeping pills drive up the risk of dementia, insomnia is also believed to be a risk factor for dementia.