Sleeping pill use 'very high' among Atlantic Canada seniors

Atlantic Canadian seniors need to find better strategies for getting a good night’s sleep, says a Dalhousie University researcher.

Sleeping pill use on P.E.I. more than double Saskatchewan rate, study finds

Changes in sleep patterns are normal as people get older. (Shutterstock)

Atlantic Canadian seniors need to find better strategies for getting a good night's sleep, says a Dalhousie University researcher.

Using Health Canada data, psychiatry Prof. Dr. David Gardner found that seniors in the Atlantic region are using far more sleeping pills than those in other parts of Canada.

"We have a very high use of sleeping pills across our four provinces," Gardner told Island Morning host Mitch Cormier.

"If we compare P.E.I. to Saskatchewan, which has the lowest rate, for every 100 sleeping pills used by seniors in Saskatchewan, 250 are being used in P.E.I.'

That's a problem, Gardner said, because regular use of sleeping pills can lead to other health problems.

Falls, failing memory, impaired driving

Seniors tend to turn to pills because changes in sleep patterns are a natural part of aging, he said.

Older people get less deep sleep and sleep can be more fragmented. You may wake up earlier in the morning and not be able to get back to sleep, and need to go to bed earlier. You feel less refreshed in the morning.

"People are thinking, 'I guess this is abnormal. I need to get myself to sleep.' And so the sleeping pill seems to be the most common thing people can think of for solving that problem," said Gardner.

Falls related to sleeping pill use can be a problem even if they don't cause injury, says Dr. David Gardner. (CBC)

One of the biggest problems associated with sleeping pills is an increased number of falls. One study connected sleeping pill use with one third of hip fractures in people over the age of 85.

But even falls that don't lead to injuries can be problematic. A fall can lead to subtle changes in a person's lifestyle.

"You stumble a little bit, because you're unsteady because of the sleeping pills," said Gardner.

"You get yourself back up and go, 'Oh boy, what just happened there?' and you become a little less confident. You socialize less and you walk less. That's not so good for your mental health or your physical health."

Sleeping pills can also lead to memory problems, because they do not create the kind of sleep that is necessary for the consolidation of long-term memories. And some studies also found people taking sleeping pills can be impaired as drivers the following morning.

Different approach

Instead of pills, Gardner is recommending seniors try cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia, which has become increasingly accessible in recent years.

Where it used to require working with a therapist, CBTI is now possible by working with an app on your phone or with a workbook.

Gardner has launched a new study in New Brunswick, the province with highest rates of sleeping pill use among seniors, where seniors will be mailed information about CBTI in an effort to get them off sleeping pills.

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning


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