Are Sleep Medications Bad for Your Brain?

An up-close view of an alarm clock, pills and glass of water
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For many Americans, a lack of solid slumber is keeping them, well, up at night. More than half of Americans 40 and older say they struggle to sleep through the night, and only 41 percent say their sleep is excellent or very good, an AARP survey found.

With so many people seeking quality zzz’s, sleeping pills can seem like an easy fix. But this seemingly simple solution carries risks: Half of those who use over-the-counter sleep aids make dangerous dosage mistakes, from taking the pills for too long to combining them with other medications and supplements. Long-term use of many of these medications is also linked to an increased risk of dementia, and in many cases sleeping pills do not provide people with a restful sleep.

“More and more, we think that sleep quality — not the amount of sleep — is what’s important” for brain health, says Kristine Yaffe, M.D., chief of neuropsychiatry at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. Scientists suspect that the brain flushes out toxins such as beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease, during sleep. And if you’re not sleeping well, Yaffe says, you’re not clearing out the proteins.

How can you improve your sleep without popping pills? Good strategies include:

  • Go to bed only when you feel drowsy, and don’t stay in bed if you feel awake.
  • Exercise — physical activity promotes good sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine after lunch and alcohol several hours before bedtime.
  • Limit your eating and drinking three hours before going to bed.
  • Talk with your doctor about sleep issues.
  • Consider cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia: Patients keep a sleep diary and then work with a sleep therapist to improve their habits.

Take a brain health assessment, play games, discover new recipes and more with AARP’s Staying Sharp.

This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide any expert, professional or specialty advice or recommendations. Readers are urged to consult with their medical providers for all questions.

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