According to one of the first studies to explore the connection between sleep medications and a dementia diagnosis long-term, regular use of such drugs could harm your future brain health.
"We know that sleep medication use is pretty common in older adults,” says Yue Leng, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California San Francisco, and the study's lead author. “Usually when people have sleep problems, they're prescribed these medications by default. But few studies have looked into what the medications are really doing to their body and to their brain.”
The study, released today at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2019, included a racially diverse group of 3,068 people, ages 70 to 79, who were cognitively healthy when the study began. Researchers questioned the participants about their use of sleeping pills and culled information about them from medical records and tests of brain function over a 15-year period.
The results: Older adults who reported using sleep medications “often” or “almost always” were 43 percent more likely to develop dementia over the course of the study than those who took them “rarely” or “never.” The association was true only for white study participants, however.
Many questions remain. The study doesn't explain why there was no association between the use of sleeping pills and dementia among black participants. Also, researchers didn't distinguish between types of sleeping aids, which may have different effects on the brain.
"The measure of sleep medication use is pretty crude in this study,” says Leng. “But we are planning further studies looking at specific types of medications, and that should tell us more.”
The data do not establish that sleeping medications cause dementia. It could be that the source of an individual's sleeplessness — and not the use of sleep aids — is responsible for cognitive decline.