June 29, 2010

INDIA: Dependence on sleeping pills rises among elderly, shows survey

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MUMBAI, Maharashtra / The Hindustan Times / Lifestyle / June 29, 2010

By Sai Raje

Falling asleep at night had never been a problem for Maniklal Shah (name changed). But after turning 50, Shah developed mild insomnia. Troubled at not feeling rested every morning, Shah approached his physician who prescribed a sleeping pill for a week. But the week-long prescription turned into a 20-year addiction.


Now at 70, Shah cannot do without his night pill. Over the years, his body got used to the prescribed dose and he increased the dose on his own.

Shah is among many older people in the city who are dependant on sleeping pills.

A recent survey conducted by Sion Hospital’s psychiatry department in two old age homes in the city showed that 33 per cent people in the 70 to 80 age group were habitual and long-time users of sleeping pills. (See box).

“Mild insomnia or sleeplessness was a common reason why some inmates had been prescribed sleeping pills for a short while, even before they came to the old age home. But some haven’t been able to kick the habit. I don’t prescribe sleeping pills to older people here as a rule,” said Dr Mallika Shetty, a general practitioner who is in charge of one of the old age homes where the survey was conducted.

“Sleeping pills shouldn’t be taken for more than a week at a stretch to cut the risk of addiction,” said Dr Nilesh Shah, head of the psychiatry department, Sion hospital.

But about 36 per cent of the habitual users in the survey had been taking the pills for five or more years. Of all users, only one had tried alternative methods for inducing sleep.

The body’s sleep requirement is known to reduce with old age. “An older person over the age of 60 may need only four to six hours of sleep every day,” said Dr Ashok Mahashur, who heads the sleep clinic at PD Hinduja Hospital, Mahim.

Sleeping pill dependence is a dangerous trend as it can have serious health implications. Using a higher dose (0.5 mg or more) over a long period can affect the brain’s cognition function.

“Studies have shown that there is a four- fold increase in incidences of suicide among elderly patients who take sleeping pills,” said Abhijna Chattopadhyay, a final year MBBS student who conducted the study for the department.