Do Sleep Meds Lead to Early Death?

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A study which recently appeared in the British Medical Journal compared 10,500 adults who took hypnotic sleeping pills -- including Ambien, Lunesta and Restoril -- with people who did not. Those who took 18 pills or fewer a year had a 3.5 times increased risk of early death. The risk was five times greater for those who took three or more pills a week. Are findings acurate? Are you at risk?

A recent study about sleeping pills being linked to a shorter lifespan has many of us tossing and turning. The study, Hypnotics' association with mortality or cancer, which appeared in the British Medical Journal, compared 10,500 adults who took hypnotic sleeping pills -- including Ambien, Lunesta and Restoril -- with people who did not. Those who took 18 pills or fewer a year had a 3.5 times increased risk of early death. The risk was five times greater for those who took three or more pills a week.


Photo by emagineart (Flickr).

For heavy users, the cancer risk was 35 percent higher -- and was higher than the risk for smokers, the study found. In addition to risk of early death, those taking sleeping pills had higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, obesity and high blood pressure.

Researchers claim their results were based on observational data and they aren't able to conclude that the sleeping pills contributed to the increased risk of death.

"What our study shows is that sleeping pills are hazardous to your health and might cause death by contributing to the occurrence of cancer, heart disease and other ailments," says study author Dr. Daniel F. Kripke, of the Viterbi Family Sleep Center at Scripps Health in San Diego, in a statement to the media.

But other sleep experts point to flaws in the study -- it has a relatively small sample size and there's no way to control for other variables that could result in more deaths. The control group didn't suffer from sleep problems, and the study didn't control for psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and other emotional factors because of confidentiality laws.

"Their methodology was flawed and their control groups compare apples and oranges," Dr. Russell Rosenberg, chairman of National Sleep Foundation and director of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine told CNN.

Researchers got the same results when they analyzed the data several different ways -- taking into account age, sex, weight and lifestyle -- and the outcome remained the same.

"More research is need to know exactly why sleeping pills are causing early death, but we believe the risks of taking sleeping pills outweigh the benefits," says Kripke.

Sanofi-Aventis, the maker of Ambien, says Ambien has 17 years of real-world experience and is safe and effective when prescribed and taken according to its labeling. So, with this in mind, what's a girl to do? There's no doubt that sleeping pills have risks and must be used cautiously. But recent studies show that 3 in 10 women take sleep medication at least a few nights a week.

If you take sleep medication, either every night or once in a while, take note:

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