Do Sleep Disturbances Really Increase Your Risk of a Fall?

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

We already know that insomnia is linked to an increased risk of fatal injury and accidental death. But can sleep disorders also increase the risk of falls?

It's a popular notion that sleep disturbances such as insomnia increase the risk of falls, particularly in older individuals, due to the effects of sleep deprivation. A February 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society set out to test this hypothesis."¨

How prevalent are falls in older adults?

Falls are a major health risk for older adults. In fact, it's thought that as many as a third of all adults over the age of 65 suffer at least one fall on an annual basis.

We also know that as many as half of older adults report sleep problems — yet no previous studies have fully examined the potential link between sleep problems and the risk of falls.

The study

More than 3,000 men with an average age of 67 were involved in the American Geriatrics Society study. Participants reported their sleep quality using three scales:

  • Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI)

  • Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS)

  • Self-reported total sleep time (TST)

They also completed questionnaires, which included information on:

  • Medical history

  • Physical activity

  • Smoking and alcohol use

  • How often participants woke to use the bathroom

Objective sleep measurements included:

  • Actigraph measurement of sleep-wake activity

  • In-home sleep studies using unattended polysomnography

To monitor data, researchers contacted participants every four months to obtain reports on any falls.

The results

Researchers found that older men with short sleep duration, lower sleep efficiency, and more self-reported excessive daytime sleepiness were more likely to experience recurrent falls.

After adjusting for age, race, and clinic, the predictors with the highest odds ratio of recurrent-falls risk were total sleep time of less than five hours and an Epworth Sleepiness Scale score of more than 10.

Interestingly, actigraph-measured napping and long sleep duration were not associated with an increased risk of falls.

Younger folks are at risk, too

It's not just older adults who are at a higher risk of falls when sleep deprived. In a 2015 study, Korean researchers found that younger individuals between the ages of 12 and 18 who got less sleep were more likely to experience a slip or fall.

The study revealed that adolescents who got less than five and a half hours of sleep were twice as likely to slip or fall in a classroom or toilet compared to those who got at least seven and a half hours of sleep.

Why is there an increased risk of falls?

Common symptoms of sleep deprivation include impaired cognitive function, depression, and balance problems. Furthermore, sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to be on medication. All these factors increase the risk of falls.

How to reduce your risk of a fallThe single best thing you can do to reduce your risk of a fall is to improve your sleep duration and sleep quality. This is best done without resorting to sleeping pills, which come with their own set of side effects.

Observing good sleep hygiene and pursuing cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia can help improve sleep without sleeping pills. If you are struggling with sleep and are concerned that you're at a higher risk of falls and other injuries, speak with your doctor or a board-certified sleep specialist.

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free sleep training for insomnia. His online course uses CBT for insomnia techniques to help participants fall asleep and stay asleep. More than 4,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.