It's insomnia, not sleeping pills, that increases the risk of falls among sleep-deprived seniors, a new study suggests.

The Study

The study authors note that in many nursing homes in the United States, elderly residents who have insomnia often go untreated due to the common belief that the hypnotic class of sleeping pills—which include benzodiazepines, barbiturates and shorter-lasting, often-advertised sleep aids increase the likelihood of falls and injuries.

However, a study of more than 34,000 Michigan nursing home residents older than age 65 found that patients who had untreated or partially treated insomnia were 90% more likely to fall within six months than those who did not have insomnia. In contrast, patients who were taking sleeping pills to treat their insomnia were only 29% more likely to fall than those who did not have insomnia


"Many physicians assume that when an older patient has insomnia and is given a hypnotic drug to help induce sleep, the drug will make the patient likely to fall and develop a hip fracture," says lead researcher Dr. Alon Avidan, a sleep specialist at the University of Michigan, "But our findings suggest that people whose insomnia is effectively treated are less likely to fall than untreated insomniacs."

"One study by itself isn't enough to eliminate current concerns about hypnotics and falls," says senior researcher Dr. Ronald Chervin, associate professor of neurology and director of the University's Sleep Disorders Center. "But many previous studies that raised these concerns did not look to see whether insomnia, rather than the drugs themselves, might be the problem. Our results should encourage older people and their caregivers to pay attention to insomnia, and to seek help for it," he concludes.

Senior Safety Tips

If you are an older adult, the New York Presbyterian Hospital offers these suggestions on how you can stay safe and healthy...

  • Get a flu shot if it's available in your area. Flu season runs from mid-October to mid-March. Flu can be fatal—and older adults are at particular risk.
  • Ask your doctor about a vaccine that protects against pneumonia.
  • Check the lighting in your home. Make sure there are no major lighting contrasts from one room to another, because older people have difficulty adjusting to changes in light. High contrasts in lighting can increase the risk of slips and falls. Also, use night lights and tape extension cords to the floor so they're not loose.
  • Check the rugs to make sure they're not wrinkled or torn, which could pose a tripping hazard. Place padding or special tape under rugs to prevent them from sliding.
  • Place anti-slip mats inside and outside your bathtub. Grab bars inside the tub are also helpful. Always check the temperature of the water before you get into the tub.
  • Exercise in the colder months, indoors if possible. Avoid strenuous exercise, such as shoveling snow.
  • Maintain a healthy diet, and drink at least four or five glasses of water every day.
  • Make sure smoke alarms are working. If you live in your own house, rather than an apartment, you should also have carbon monoxide alarms.
  • Wear proper footwear. In winter, comfortable shoes with anti-slip soles will help you get around on icy streets.
  • Get a programmable phone and enter emergency numbers. A personal emergency-response system can be worn around your neck or on a bracelet to allow you to summon help easily.

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