Researchers analyzing the electronic health records of more than 30,000 patients have found that those taking popular sleeping pills such as temazepam (Restoril), zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta) and zaleplon (Sonata) were significantly more likely to die during the two and a half years of follow-up.
The records of 10,529 patients who got sleeping pill prescriptions between 2002 and 2007 were matched to those of 23,676 people who got no sleeping pills. The matches took into account gender, age (average was 54 years old), obesity, smoking, health problems diagnosed other than insomnia, ethnicity, alcohol use and marital status. The results were shocking: those taking sleeping pills were about four times (3.6 to 5.6) more likely to die during the follow-up.
People 18 to 55 who took sleeping pills were at greater risk of dying during this time than those aged 65 to 75 not taking sleeping pills. Older people (especially those over 75) and those who took sleeping pills more often were at especially great risk. The research is published in the new journal BMJ Open
The researchers point out that these medications can impair judgment and reaction time and may make driving accidents and falls more likely. They can also exacerbate sleep apnea, which has an effect on blood pressure and heart disease. Zolpidem, moreover, increases acid reflux and is associated with more esophageal damage, cancer and infections.
The investigators also found that people taking sleeping pills were 20 to 35 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer during the follow-up. This too is alarming news for the up to 10 percent of American adults who take one of these popular sleep aids. The scientists point out that this study establishes an association and does not demonstrate that sleeping pills cause cancer. They estimate, though, that these medications may have resulted in 320,000 to 507,000 unnecessary deaths in this country in 2010 and note that even 10,000 excess deaths would be too many. They suggest that the limited benefits of prescription sleep aids may well be outweighed by these new data indicating how serious the risks may be.
People who would like to learn more about non-drug approaches to combating insomnia may be interested in our Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep.