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Sleep Aids--Do They Help or Harm?

Millions of Americans take something to help them sleep and in fact, one out of six Americans report experiencing chronic sleep problems. Sleep deprivation and inadequate sleep is a huge problem in our society today but it's particularly worrisome for those over age 50. The older we get, the less we're able to recover quickly from several nights of inadequate sleep and may even become a dangerous situation if it involves older drivers, pilots or assembly line workers--anyone who deals with public safety or machinery.

The problem appears to be that our total sleep time has been decreasing for decades and while sleep medications can promote sleep, they are a double-edged sword. Many of our most commonly prescribed medications, as well as many over-the-counter sleep medications have been linked to cognitive decline (the ability to reason, think or remember), brain shrinkage and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Medications such as Xanax and Elavil fall into this category of risk. And alarming new research now implicates simple antihistamines such as Benedryl which are often found in over-the-counter sleep medications. The effects are particularly worrisome in middle-age and older people. This is because such drugs deplete the brain's supply of the essential neurotransmitter acetylcholine. That's why collectively they're referred to as anti-cholinergic drugs. One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease is a deficiency of acetylcholine.

These sleep aides should not be used for any length of time, only for short-term sleep deprivation because of their long-term side effects. Rather, non-drug remedies are best for promoting good sleep. These include good sleep hygiene (following a specific regimen), which includes some of the following:

- Reserving your bed for sleep (and intimate activities with your spouse)

- Having a set bedtime and wake time (it appears that the body's best hours for

rejuvenation and healing are from 10:00 pm to 2:00 am in the morning!)

- Avoiding daytime naps longer than 30 minutes

- Not eating or drinking anything several hours before bedtime

- Winding down with low-intensity activities like reading or meditation before bedtime

AAging Better recognizes that adequate sleep is one of the most important activities our older clients need on a routine basis and we do all we can to help our clients promote good sleep hygiene at all times. It's something we take seriously and work with family members or the client to develop and keep healthy habits that help promote good sleep

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