SAN FRANCISCO— The idea of popping a pill for easier, longer sleep certainly sounds convenient, but researchers at the University of California, San Francisco might make you think twice about opting for a little Ambien.
Their study finds that various sleeping pills, including Benzos, Ambien, and antidepressants, may increase the risk of developing dementia, especially in white people.
However, the research team adds that the type and amount of medication may play a role in explaining the higher risk.
Notably, this work follows previous research that found that African Americans actually had a higher likelihood than Caucasians of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. This project also concluded that African Americans have different risk factors and manifestations of dementia disease.
For this most recent study, the study authors analyzed about 3,000 elderly people without dementia, who lived outside nursing homes.
All of these individuals were part of the Health, Aging, and Body Composition Study, with researchers following them for an average of nine years. The average participant was 74 years old and 42% were black, while 58% were white.
During the study, 20% of these participants developed dementia. White participants who “often” or “almost always” took sleeping pills had a 79% higher risk of developing dementia than those who “never” or “rarely” used sleeping pills.
Among black participants in particular, a group whose consumption of sleep aids, in general, was significantly lower, frequent users did not appear more likely to develop dementia compared to those who completely abstained or rarely used sleeping pills.
“The differences can be attributed to socioeconomic status,” says first author Yue Leng, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UCSF and the Weill Institute for Neuroscience, in an academic statement.
“Black participants who have access to sleeping pills might be a select group with high socioeconomic status and, therefore, greater cognitive reserve, making them less susceptible to dementia.”
“It’s also possible that some sleeping pills have been associated with a higher risk of dementia than others.”
Whites are 3 times more likely to use sleeping pills
The study authors note that Caucasians (7.7%) were about three times more likely than Blacks (2.7%) to take sleeping pills often (5 to 15 times per month) or almost always (16 times per month for daily use).
Whites were also almost twice as likely to use benzodiazepines (Halcion, Dalmane, and Restoril) – which doctors often prescribe to treat chronic insomnia.
Additionally, the study finds Caucasians were 10 times more likely to use trazodone, an antidepressant sold under the brand names Desyrel and Oleptro, which doctors also prescribe as a sleep aid.
Whites were also seven times more likely to take “Z drugs,” such as Ambien.
In summary, Dr. Leng says that future studies could further clarify the cognitive risks or benefits of sleeping pills, as well as the influence of race. Overall, though, it’s probably a good idea to avoid these drugs as much as possible.
“The first step is to determine what kind of sleep problems patients are facing. A sleep test may be needed if sleep apnea is a possibility,” concludes Leng.
“If insomnia is diagnosed, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) is the first-line treatment. 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.
The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.