Older Adults Experience Dizziness, and Possible Falls, From Sleep Aids

Sleep problems are not uncommon among the elderly population, with millions of older adults complaining of the situation to physicians every year. In turn, many sedative prescriptions are also given to people over age 60 – but the benefits and the possible negative side effects should be closely considered, according to results of two research reviews.

Approximately five percent to 33 percent of people in the over 60 population receive prescriptions for insomnia medications, including Halcion (benzodiazepine) and similar formulas, such as Ambien. The pros and cons of sleep prescriptions were compared in a review of 24 research studies, with the most recent study review dated from 2003. The review also included non-prescription medications used as sleep aids.

During the review, many of the 2,400 people who participated in the various studies said they did sleep better, and for longer periods of time, when using prescriptions or over-the-counter sleep aids. Researchers also took note of side effects, including losing balance and feeling dizzy, which was reported in 13 of the studies. During these episodes, some significant consequences were noted, such as several falls and one car accident.

Older adults who took sleep aids also experienced tiredness during the day at a rate four times higher than those who took a placebo in the research studies, which some said was more noticeable in the morning hours.

Nightmares, headaches and problems like nausea were also reported among older adults who used sleep aids. More research is needed, say study reviewers, but they concluded that for older adults, the chances of having a negative side effect may outweigh the benefits of using a medication for sleep.

University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers also explored the benefits and disadvantages of sleep drugs prescribed to older adults, looking at 22 international studies from the time period of 1996 to 2007, especially in terms of number of falls. Data from nearly 80,000 participants was included, using both prescription and non-prescription drugs.

Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the research review said the sedative effect of drugs prescribed to treat depression among senior populations may contribute to a higher risk of falling, and the same was true for benzodiazepines. One chief danger from falling is bone fracture, which is among the top five major causes of fatalities among older adults.

The use of prescription drugs for sleep and mood disorders has been climbing in recent years, especially for people in the 80-plus demographic. Although anxiety and depression are among causes of insomnia for many seniors, researchers say the review findings prompt careful utilization of prescription sleep aids and other medications that may produce dizziness or drowsiness, leading to dangerous falls.

Instead, older adults can try calming activities like counseling, or look for sleep medications that don’t have a strong sedative effect to improve sleep quality and establish more normal sleep patterns.