The advice from sleep experts couldn’t be clearer. If you have trouble sleeping, seek help. Ignoring the problem increases the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

But seek out natural sleep aids.

A visit to the doctor’s office too often means a prescription for sleeping pills.

Even if the pills give a better night’s sleep, it’s a type of sleep that may not decrease your Alzheimer’s risk. The drugs themselves may harm the brain.

Let’s take a look at what these popular drugs do to cognitive ability and memory. . .

There are already studies linking sleeping pills with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, but last year the biggest study, involving over 350,000 Finnish participants, provided crushing new evidence.

The researchers examined the effect of taking benzodiazepines and z-drugs.

The former are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the US, sold under about 60 brand names including Valium, Ativan and Xanax, and used to help people sleep and also to reduce anxiety.

Z-drugs are prescribed for insomnia only and include Lunesta, Sonata and Ambien.

After adjusting the findings to take into account socioeconomic status, various health problems and the use of antidepressants and antipsychotics, the scientists found these drugs may cause something like 5.7% of Alzheimer’s cases.

The authors accepted that the increased risk was modest, but still found their findings “worrying” because these two types of pharmaceuticals are prescribed for millions of older people and are often used long-term, even though they are only designed to be used for a month.

Risk Increases by 43% for Highest Users

At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference held in Los Angeles in July, Dr. Yue Leng from the University of California San Francisco explained that “sleep medication use is very common in the elderly, but the effect of sleep meds on cognition is poorly understood.”

To find out more, he and his colleagues examined 3,068 men and women, all in their 70s and without dementia at the onset of the study. They followed the participants over a period of 15 years, dividing them into five groups according to how often they took sleeping pills per month: never, rarely (once or less), sometimes (2-4 times), often (5-15), almost always (16-30).

After adjustment for the APOE4 “Alzheimer’s” gene and other risk factors, they found those in the “often” or higher category were 43% more likely to develop dementia than those in the bottom two categories. Those taking sleeping pills only “sometimes” were not at any increased risk.

Dr. Yue Leng told the audience that clinicians should be more cautious about prescribing these medications to older people and suggested that there are “non-pharmacological sleep treatment options that should be considered.”

Men & Women Affected Differently

In another presentation, Elizabeth Vernon, from the University of Utah, shared findings from 3,656 adults aged 65 or older who were followed for 12 years.

The researchers found men using sleep medication had 3.6 times the risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to non-users.

However, for women the findings were unexpected and surprising. Those who took sleep medication to facilitate sleep but who did not suffer with insomnia had almost four times the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

But women who took the pills to relieve insomnia had a 35% decreased risk.

The researcher was unable to explain this finding, but did tell the audience the research indicates — as have other studies — that men and women should be viewed differently when it comes to Alzheimer’s risk.

She also explained that several classes of sleep meds decrease slow wave and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which are needed to turn new experiences into long-term memory.

In other words, as I suggested at the beginning, even if people get a better night’s sleep by taking medication, the changes caused are harmful to the brain. Normal healthy sleep is not the same as drug-induced sleep.

I hope that by the time the study is peer-reviewed and published, the researchers will be able to explain the strange difference in the findings among women.

Like Dr. Leng, Elizabeth Vernon advises non-drug alternatives such as sleep hygiene interventions and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29851063
  2. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/900813
  3. https://www.alz.org/aaic/releases_2019/monSLEEP-jul15.asp

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