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Older Americans Tossing and Turning to Doctors

Older Americans Tossing and Turning to Doctors

No consensus on safety of sleep medication

by Linda Lyons

This is the third article based on data from Gallup's recent study for the International Longevity Center of older Americans' attitudes toward sleep.

Older Americans associate good sleep with good health, so it's not surprising that when they have problems sleeping, most bring it up with their doctor. According to a recent Gallup study*, 24% of Americans aged 50 and older believe they have a sleep problem. Of those believing they have a sleep problem, nearly three-quarters (72%) say they have discussed it with their healthcare provider.

Slightly less than half of those who say they have discussed their sleeping problems with their healthcare providers are receiving some type of treatment -- such as prescription or over-the-counter medications, or cognitive-behavior therapy -- for a sleep disorder. Dr. Carlos Fragoso, a sleep specialist and Senior Geriatric Fellow at Yale, says he often takes a dual approach to treating sleeplessness. "I will use sleep medication as rescue therapy -- a safety valve during which time we can try some behavior interventions. Or sometimes medication can just break the vicious cycle of insomnia."

Sleep Assistance

When it comes to prescription sleep medications, there's no clear consensus among older Americans about how safe they are. Twenty-three percent think sleep medications are generally safe, rating them a "4" or "5" on a 5-point scale, while 36% say they are not safe, rating them a "1" or "2."

Respondents were also asked about eight specific concerns they may have about taking prescription sleep aids. A majority of older Americans say they are worried about each of them. The greatest concern, cited by nearly three-quarters (73%) of respondents, is not knowing the long-term effects of a prescription sleep aid. Two-thirds are concerned about the possibility of addiction and feeling groggy and not well rested the next day.

The possibility of drug interaction concerns 6 in 10 respondents (63%), as well. Doug Washburn, a 62-year-old writer from California, says he has spoken to his doctor about his sleep problems often during the last several months. "I brought it up because I had been under such stress over the sale of my house that I just couldn't sleep at night," he says. "He suggested a prescription medication, but I already take so many other things, I worry too much about potential interactions to take his advice."

Bottom Line

As people age, a good night's sleep can become an elusive dream. Behavioral changes such as napping during the day and medical conditions that interfere with sleep often beset people at a time in life when they actually have more time to rest and relax. Washburn chuckles when he thinks about how important sleep is to him now compared to how unimportant it was to him in his youth. "If I slept, fine; if I didn't, that was fine, too. It never bothered me one way or the other," he says. "But now, when you can't sleep, you just don't feel well -- and it makes you feel even older. Sleep means a whole lot more to me now than it did when I was younger."

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 50 and older, conducted for the International Longevity Center on Aug. 15 through Sept. 18, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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