Do you take a sleeping pill to get a better night's rest? If you do, a new study could keep you up at night.
Scripps Clinic sleep researchers found that those who take even a few prescription sleeping pills during the year are nearly four times more likely to die prematurely than people who don't take them.
This is unsettling news for the nearly one in 10 American adults who use prescription sleep medications such as zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), temazepam (Restoril) and zaleplon (Sonata).
The researchers looked at nearly 11,000 people, average age 54, who were prescribed sleeping pills for an average of 2.5 years. This group was compared with about 24,000 subjects of the same age with similar health histories who had not been prescribed sleeping pills over the same period.
After 2.5 years, 638 deaths occurred among the sleeping pill users compared with 295 deaths in those who didn't.
The researchers adjusted the data for various factors including gender, smoking, weight, alcohol use and prior cancer, but still found that those who took as few as one to 18 sleeping pills a year were more than 3.5 times as likely to die during the study period as those in the control group.
And the risk of early death increased with the number of pills used. Those who took three sleeping pills or more a week had a fivefold jump in risk of death compared to non-users.
The study, published this week by the British medical publication BMJ Open, also documented a 35 percent increased risk of cancer among people taking sleeping pills, compared with the non-prescription group. The risk of developing lymphoma, lung, colon or prostate cancer associated with sleeping pills was greater than the effect from smoking, lead author Daniel Kripke, M.D., told Time.com.
The study's methodology was immediately criticized by some sleep experts, as well as the company that makes Ambien, the most widely used sleep aid used by the study participants.
The findings, critics said, don't prove that sleeping pills actually cause death or cancer, they only show an association. It could be that those who are having sleep problems already have an underlying health problem that puts them at greater risk of dying or cancer. The researchers also didn't account for psychological disorders among the sleeping pill users, nor did they determine the exact causes of death among them.
Kripke agreed that cause and effect had not been established, but he said many studies have previously raised concerns about the safety of sleep medications.
Kripeke, a sleep disorder specialist, told the Los Angeles Times that many -- especially older patients -- who depend on sleep aids should know that they may function perfectly well with a little less sleep and that sleep aids do not add large chunks of sleep-time to a night's rest anyway.
A better solution, he said, would be to improve "sleep hygiene" -- meaning the habits, environment and other practices that may affect the length and quality of a person's sleep.
Those include getting regular exercise (but not at night), getting out in the bright sunlight during the day, going to bed and waking up at the same time daily, avoiding caffeine and alcohol late in the day, and keeping the bedroom dark, cool and quiet.
In other health news:
FDA adds diabetes, memory loss warning to statin labels. Health regulators are adding warnings to the labels of widely used cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as Lipitor and Crestor, to say they may raise levels of blood sugar and could cause memory loss. But don't panic, says one cardiologist. "These are nuances, tiny little tweaks to the label, and the bigger picture doesn't change," Steven Nissen, chief of cardiology at Cleveland Clinic, told Reuters. "There are few drugs that have saved as many lives as statins and we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here."
Knee replacement -- it could save your life. For years surgeons have boasted of the pain relief and improved quality of life that often follow knee replacement. But now new research suggests that for some patients, knee replacement surgery can actually save their lives, the New York Times reports. In a sweeping study of Medicare records, researchers examined the effects of joint replacement among nearly 135,000 patients and found that patients had an 11 percent lower risk of heart failure after three years; after seven years, their risk of dying for any reason was a whopping 50 percent lower -- probably because they were able to become more active.
'Chemo brain' may last for years after treatment. Women on chemotherapy for breast cancer may have small memory and thinking impairments compared with cancer-free women more than 20 years after their treatment, Dutch researchers have found.
Photo credit: drugfreehomes.org