I couldn’t help but be reminded of Prozac Nation when I read a study titled Prescription Sleep Aid Use in Young Adults. Prozac Nation tells the tale of a young woman’s quest for the therapy to treat her depression. She finds it in Prozac, and the book describes the pill as a type of salvation for the depressed masses. The drug’s hype combined with the prevalence of depression led the treatment to become a cultural phenomenon. Now, with many people suffering from sleep problems, will Lunesta and Ambien become the salvation for sleep? A new study conducted by Thomson Reuters seems to suggest that they are. It found that the use of prescription sleep aids nearly tripled among 18- to 24-year-olds between 1998 and 2006. Pinpointing cultural characteristics of this age group reveals possible explanations for the rise in prescription sleep aid usage.


Today’s 18- to 24-year-olds want solutions, and they want them now. Want money? Take out a loan. Feel blue? Take a pill. Can’t sleep? Take another pill. This mentality is also exemplified in the Thomson Reuters study’s conclusions: “… our findings suggest that many young adults turn to prescription sleep aids without first seeking care from health professionals trained in cognitive behavior therapies that often result in sustained, long-term improvement.” It may be not only the 18- to 24-year-olds who want a quick fix, but also the physicians, says Donna Arand, clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorders Center, Dayton, Ohio, and president of the American Insomnia Association, Chicago. “A big piece of this is the practitioners who are prescribing the medication. Are they doing this because it is easier or a potential fast fix?” she asks. “I’m concerned that the practitioners may be overprescribing, as well as the culture being more accepting with medication.”


Constant connectivity has come to define the 18- to 24-year-old group. Sending more than 15,000 text messages per month is becoming more commonplace. “In the age group 18-24, over the last 10 years more and more young people have access to cell phones, Internet, and computers, and they can basically be communicating all the time with their peers,” Arand says. “There are no real time limits on people’s ability to interact.” The ability to stay constantly connected may help explain the rise in sleep aid use. Arand says more people in this age group are realizing that they can’t stay awake all night, interact with friends, and manage to wake up at a regular time for class or work. Faced with this, it’s possible that many turn to sleep aids for an answer.


How can sleep professionals tap into generational attitudes that have the potential to make 18- to 24-year-olds quick to turn to prescription sleep medications? For one, the sleep medicine community needs to make sure physicians are aware of the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). There also needs to be a sufficient number of professionals trained in CBT. Furthermore, 18- to 24-year-olds need to be educated. “They also need to understand how their sleep system works and how their behaviors and activities impact that sleep system to weaken it,” Arand says. “With that understanding, it will help them improve their sleep hygiene and their own ability to maintain a strong sleep system without looking toward medication.”

—Franklin A. Holman
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