Q. My 88-year-old husband was prescribed Ambien for insomnia. After the first dose, he fell asleep while getting up to go to the bathroom, and gashed his head. A year later, I gave him a half-dose (again prescribed) and within minutes, his legs collapsed. I had the hardest time getting him back into bed. Ambien? Never again!
A. Your experience reminds us that sleeping pills may pose a serious risk for older people who have to get up at night to go to the bathroom.
Another worry about sleeping pills and sedatives is their link to dementia. One French study found that older people who relied on drugs such as alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan) were more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than nonusers (BMJ, Sept. 2012).
Other research found that sleeping pills like zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zaleplon (Sonata) were associated with a greater risk of dying. (BMJ Open, Feb. 27, 2012).
These drugs may aggravate sleep apnea, which can make hypertension and heart problems harder to treat. They also can make people less alert and dull their reflexes behind the wheel the next day.
There are nondrug options for insomnia. Natural approaches include the dietary supplement melatonin, which is made by the brain and helps control the daily cycle of wakefulness and drowsiness. (Physiology, Sept. 2014).
Certain herbs also may help people relax and fall asleep. Valerian, lemon balm, passionflower, and hops all have been used as sleep aids.
It’s not a good idea to eat too close to bedtime. Digesting a large meal could cause heartburn that wakes you up.
But some folks find that eating a light snack rich in carbohydrates and tryptophan such as cereal or graham crackers with milk an hour before bedtime helps them feel sleepy.
Many people report success overcoming insomnia by taking magnesium before bed.
In one placebo-controlled trial, older adults were given either 500 mg of magnesium or placebo pills in the evening. The magnesium supplements helped people fall asleep more quickly (Journal of Research in Medical Science, Dec. 2012). Magnesium supplements are not appropriate for those with kidney problems.
An acupressure wristband is another relatively low-impact and potentially high-reward insomnia remedy. People use such bands to cope with the nausea of motion sickness.
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