Trouble falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep and awakening too early afflict a lot of Americans these days, according to the editors of Consumer Reports.
The Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,466 adults. When asked about their most recent night of sleep, 50 percent of respondents reported those problems, and for many, they occur repeatedly. When asked about the previous month, 44 percent said they had one or more of those issues on at least eight nights, making them "problem sleepers."
The 24/7 nature of today's world, along with continuous access to entertainment and activities, is one reason for the problem, according to the National Institutes of Health. It estimates that as many as 70 million Americans may be affected, with annual health care expenses of $16 billion.
Another reason: health issues that interfere with sleep. For instance, 57 percent of survey respondents who said they suffered from conditions such as arthritis, back pain or neck pain said that those ailments disrupted their sleep during the previous months.
CR's key findings
¢ Although sleep medications are usually recommended for no more than two weeks or so, 14 percent of respondents took some pill on at least eight of the past 30 nights, and 5 percent turned to prescription drugs every night of the month.
¢ Sixty-three percent of those who took sleep medications experienced side effects like drowsiness; 24 percent said they became dependent on the medication they used; and 21 percent said that repeated use reduced the drug's effectiveness.
¢ More than a quarter of respondents said it took them 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep the previous night, and one-quarter awakened in the middle of the night and couldn't go back to sleep for at least a half-hour.
¢ CR's survey found that of six characteristics that problem sleepers had in common, the most prevalent was high stress levels. Most of the time, respondents were anxious over family or money concerns, health issues or work woes.
CR's report cautions that far too many people are turning to medicine as a first resort to treat their insomnia. In fact, last year, 24 million prescriptions were written for the four best-selling sleep drugs alone.
Tips for better sleep
¢ The first step doesn't have to be a drug. Consider alternatives such as sound machines and relaxation techniques.
¢ Examine bad habits. Long or late-night naps; watching TV in bed; drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages close to bedtime; eating large meals at night; allowing pets or children to share the bed; and varying bedtime and wake-up times can cause problems.
¢ Check the mattress. The bed could be one source of sleep problems. If a mattress is more than eight years old, replace it.
¢ See a doctor. If sleeplessness persists several nights a week for at least three months, it's probably time to see a doctor.