Overuse of sleeping pills among the elderly raises concerns

One in five Swiss residents over 65 take sleeping pills, according to a new study akg-images

The consumption of sleeping pills among elderly people in Switzerland is worryingly high, especially among women, a new study concludes.

This content was published on January 13, 2020 - 10:40

According to the studyExternal link commissioned by the Swiss Medical Board, one in five Swiss residents over 65 took sleep-inducing benzodiazepines in 2017 and the percentage increases with age. Women popped sleeping pills almost twice as much as men (25.1% compared to 14.6%). Female consumption is higher in French- and Italian-speaking cantons.

The Swiss Medical BoardExternal link said the study’s results into the use of sleeping pills was a “cause for concern”.

“Benzodiazepines are drugs used to treat sleep problems. However, they also have side effects that increase with age. Benzodiazepines should therefore not be taken for long periods of time,” it said in a statement.

The study conducted by UnisantéExternal link at the University Hospital in Lausanne showed that the use of benzodiazepines increases with age: 15.9% of 60 to 65-year-olds use them, 22.5% of 75 to 80-year-olds and up to a quarter of those over 80.

It found that treatment exceeds 15 days in 80% of cases. For 40% of those who received at least one prescription of sleeping pills, more than 90 therapeutic doses were taken during the year.

“Considering that use of [benzodiazepines] is typically not recommended beyond 2–4 weeks of treatment, the prevalence of benzodiazepine overuse among older people in Switzerland is likely to be as high as 16%,” the authors wrote. “This proportion might be twice higher in non-German-speaking cantons, among women over 80 years old and in multimorbid people [suffering from more than one chronic illness at a time].”

Understanding a public health risk

They warned that the overconsumption of sleeping pills among the elderly risks becoming a public health issue in Switzerland and that the causes and the consequences of this phenomenon should be closely analysed.

“Is it driven by patient demand or by physician supply, with a minority of doctors initiating such treatments? Potential explanations of excessive prescription by doctors include inaccurate appreciation of the risk–benefit trade-off of the medication, poor knowledge of alternative treatment options or consultation time constraints while facing complex psychosocial problems,” they wrote. 

“The development of clearer prescription guidelines, accompanied with improved monitoring of use, might help curb prescription rates.”

The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, analysed the data of 69,005 people over 65 from cantons Aargau, Basel-City, Fribourg, Geneva, Jura, Neuchâtel, Ticino, Vaud and Valais. 

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