Study Finds That Sleeping Pills May Put You At Risk For Dementia Later In Life

Seniors who frequently employ the use of sleeping pills may be increasing their risk of dementia, according to a 2023 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

Insomnia, which is characterized by difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, is a common condition that affects up to 50% of Americans (per Cleveland Clinic). When insomnia becomes a chronic issue, it is often treated with over-the-counter or prescription medication. However, because the extended use of these medications can have negative side effects, doctors typically recommend that sleeping pills be used for a short period and not as a long-term solution.

Regardless, data from a 2020 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that, over the course of 30 days, over 8% of Americans took sleeping pills either every night or most nights to fall asleep — and seniors made up the majority of frequent sleeping pill users. Now, new research reveals that the incidence of dementia is 79% higher in some seniors who regularly use sleeping pills compared to those who don't, or those who use them occasionally.

Are the pills to blame?

The study looked at 3,000 seniors between the ages of 70-79. Of the participants, 60% were white, and 40% were Black. Over the course of five years, researchers contacted participants three different times to gather data on how often they were taking sleeping pills before bed.

Amongst the white participants, 7.7% of them said they often, or almost always, used some kind of medication to help them fall asleep, compared to 2.7% of Black participants. Over the course of 15 years, 1 out of every 5 participants developed dementia. While the incidence of dementia increased by 79% in white participants who frequently used sleep aids, Black participants who reported similar usage didn't meet the same fate. In fact, Black participants who took sleeping pills regularly were at no higher risk for dementia than participants who never took them — a fact researchers were surprised to learn as Alzheimer's typically affects Black people at a higher rate than white people (per U.S. News & World Report).

Researchers have some theories as to why this may be the case — including certain medications causing more harm than others and insomnia, not medication, being linked to dementia — but more research is needed. Due to the observational nature of the study, whether or not this is a matter of cause and effect is impossible to determine, and researchers were careful not to suggest that sleeping pills are the reason for the increased risk of dementia.