Sleeping Pill Users: Higher Death and Cancer Rates
If you've been guilty of popping a pill every once in a while to get a good night's sleep, you are among many Americans who are prescribed sleeping pills to improve their rest. But a new study shows that while sleeping pills can seem a godsend in the wee hours of the morning, they may in fact contribute to an increased risk of death and of getting cancer.
From 2006 to 2010, the sleeping-pill industry expanded by 23% in the United States and generated $2 billion in sales. But the growing use of the hypnotic pills may be creating greater hazards for mortality, cancer, and heart disease.
Researchers from Scripps Health in San Diego studied the use of 8 of the most commonly used sleeping pills, including popular drugs zolpidem and temazepam. Patients who were prescribed the sleeping pills were matched with a control group of similar patients who were not using the pills. The patients were matched using gender, age and health, in order to eliminate as much as possible other factors that might contribute to increased risk of mortality or cancer. The researchers found that overall there was a 4.6-fold increased risk of death and a significant increase in cancer cases among patients who used sleeping pills regularly. Even among patients who only occasionally used the pills (between 1 to 18 pills per year), the risk of death was 3.6 times higher.
Patients who used prescription sleeping pills regularly (132 doses or more a year) had a 35% higher rate of new cancers. The study included over 10,500 patients who regularly used sleeping pills and over 23,000 control patients who did not. The study was based on observational data available through electronic medical records. Researchers said that although the results of the study were alarming, more research in more controlled settings would need to be done in order to determine whether taking sleeping pills was the definitive factor in higher mortality and cancer rates.
However, the researchers did urge doctors and patients to consider other alternatives to taking sleeping pills. For example, relaxation techniques and working with the body's natural circadian rhythm can be very helpful in improving insomnia, and should be tried before prescribing sleeping pills. When insomnia arises from psychological factors, such as depression, the underlying cause should be treated in order to improve symptoms. According to the researchers, prescribing potentially harmful hypnotic medications should be considered only when other techniques have been used.