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Common sleeping pills may significantly raise the risk of dementia, a study suggests.

People who said they took the medications ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ were up to 80 percent more likely to be diagnosed than people who never or rarely took them.

But the findings only applied to white people, which the researchers say may indicate that other lifestyle habits and household income may also be a factor. There is also a chance that insomnia – the reason many take sleeping pills – is a risk factor for cognitive decline later in life.

The experiment only addressed prescription drugs such as Ambien, not over the counter supplements such as melatonin. 

However, there is some evidence that melatonin also causes cognitive problems when taken over a long period. 

People who took sleeping pills often had a 79 percent increased risk of developing dementia

People who took sleeping pills often had a 79 percent increased risk of developing dementia

Prescription sleeping pills like Ambien have become increasingly popular in the US with roughly 17 million Americans taking them

Prescription sleeping pills like Ambien have become increasingly popular in the US with roughly 17 million Americans taking them

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than eight percent of adults take sleep aids a few times a week to every night, the equivalent of around 17 million.

One in three Americans get too little sleep. Sleeping less than seven hours per day is associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

A team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco enrolled 3,068 people whose average age was 74 in the Health, Aging and Body Composition study and followed them for an average of nine years. 

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Over the course of the 15-year study, over 20 percent developed dementia. 

White study subjects, who made up 58 percent of the sample pool, were considerably more likely than their black counterparts to take sleeping pills. And those who took pills ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ had a 79 percent increased risk of developing dementia.

Dr Yue Leng from the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences said: ‘Differences may be attributed to socioeconomic status.

‘Black participants who have access to sleep medications might be a select group with high socioeconomic status, and thus greater cognitive reserve, making them less susceptible to dementia. It’s also possible that some sleep medications were associated with a higher risk of dementia than others.’

Sleeping pills have grown increasingly common in the US with millions of dependants, but scientists have pointed out that they fail to work as a long-term cure for insomnia.

Study authors asked people in the study three times, ‘Do you take sleeping pills or other medications to help you sleep?’ with the response options: ‘Never’ (zero times per month), ‘Rarely’ (once a month or less), ‘Sometimes’ (two to four times per month), ‘Often’ (five to 15 times per month), or ‘Almost Always’ (16 to 30 times per month).

Study participants reported taking a wide variety of prescribed medications for insomnia, including benzodiazepines, like Halcion, Dalmane and Restoril, the antidepressant trazodone, and so-called Z-drugs such as Ambien and Lunesta.

Most sleep aids come with a spate of side effects, many of which can be mild such as dizziness and prolonged drowsiness. But a habit of taking benzodiazepines and sleep-inducing drugs like Ambien most nights can be habit-forming and result in dependence or addiction.

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The findings out of San Francisco, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, are not the first to draw a link between sleeping pills and increased dementia risk. In 2018, a study carried out by the University of Eastern Finland, found that for patients taking benzodiazepines or Z-drugs, the risk of Alzheimer’s increased by around six percent.

In 2014, A team of researchers from France and Canada found a link between benzodiazepines and Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia. People who had taken a benzodiazepine for three months or less had about the same dementia risk as those who had never taken one.

Meanwhile, taking a benzo for three to six months raised the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 32 percent, and taking it for more than six months boosted the risk by 84 percent.

Dr Leng urged people to think twice before reaching for a pill and instead start with a sleep test and cognitive behavioral therapy.

‘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,’ Dr Leng said.

Ironically, while sleeping pills drive up the risk of dementia, insomnia does too.

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