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Study unveils drug-free cure for insomnia in senior citizens

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Traditionally, chronic insomnia is treated using sedatives, which can cause drowsiness and falls, resulting in death or injury. The new study offers a behavioural option, which is safe for the aged and their caregivers. Photo/FILE

Traditionally, chronic insomnia is treated using sedatives, which can cause drowsiness and falls, resulting in death or injury. The new study offers a behavioural option, which is safe for the aged and their caregivers. Photo/FILE 

By Paula Span

Posted  Wednesday, April 13   2011 at  00:00

There is now a quick, effective solution to the insomnia that plagues an estimated 15 to 30 per cent of older adults - without drugs, without even needing to consult a physician.

But a University of Pittsburgh team, testing its method on 79 seniors with chronic insomnia (average age: 72), has reported very encouraging results.

The treatment required just two explanatory sessions (the first lasts 45 to 60 minutes, the second about half an hour) with a nurse-practitioner, plus two brief follow-up phone calls, over the course of a month.

Improved sleep

Afterward, the researchers recently reported in The Archives of Internal Medicine, two-thirds of those treated reported a clearly measurable improvement in sleep, compared with 25 per cent of those in a control group.

“Their total sleep time improved,” the lead author, Dr. Daniel Buysse, a psychiatry professor and sleep specialist, told me in an interview.

Indeed, 55 per cent of those treated no longer had insomnia at all.

And six months later, three-quarters of those tested had maintained or improved their better sleep patterns.

So what was this potential wonder nondrug?

That’s the interesting part. The treatment was a “brief behavioural treatment intervention” known to be an effective antidote to insomnia, as documented by extensive research for over 30 years. It’s a change in what you do, not in what you ingest. Emphasis on brief.

“If behavioural treatments are ever to become widespread, they have to be simple and quick and produce noticeable results,” Dr. Buysse explained. “If you don’t see substantial improvement in a month or so, patients’ motivation to persevere will diminish”.

So the researchers distilled those principles into four simple rules, came up with a workbook and sleep diaries to help patients follow them, and trained a nurse-practitioner to explain the regimen and the physiology behind it.

Insomnia, like other sleep disorders, can take a serious toll on seniors’ health.

It’s associated with depression, with falls and fractures, with higher mortality - and its prevalence increases with age.

So doctors take insomnia seriously and prescribe medications to help patients sleep.

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