What does a new mother and an over the road truck driver have in common? Sleep deprivation! These are just a few of the many people that can definitely relate to desperately needing a good night’s sleep. But, did you know that if you take as little as one sleeping pill a year, you are putting yourself at a greater risk to develop cancer? And, even possibly to die an early death?
According to a new study released this week by the British medical publication BMJ Open, 6% to 10% of Americans who use prescription sleep aids are four times more likely to die early and to develop cancer, than those that don’t use the medications.
Sleeping pills linked to these risks included benzodiazepines such as temazepam; non-benzodiazepines such as Ambien (zolpidem), Lunesta (eszopiclone) and Sonata (zaleplon); barbiturates; and sedative antihistamines.
The increased rates kick in at really low levels too, the study says. For those prescribed as few as one to 18 sleeping pills in a year, deaths during the period of the new study were more than three and a half times greater than for those who got no such prescriptions, the study says. And for patients who took home the largest number of prescriptions for sleep aids–for more than 132 pills per year–the risk of death was five times greater than among those who appeared to take no sleep aids, according to the study.
Compared with patients with no record of taking prescription sleeping pills, the study says, those who were the heaviest users of prescription sleep aids were 35% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer during the study period.
Conducted by researchers from Scripps and the Jackson Hole Center for Preventive Medicine in Jackson, Wy., the study tracked 10,531 patients given prescriptions for hypnotic sedatives for at least three months and for as long as four years.
Studies such as this one do not establish whether sleep drugs are a cause of the increased cancers and deaths or whether, perhaps, those who are at greater risk of dying or developing cancer are simply more likely to seek a prescription for sleep problems. To establish such cause-and-effect relationships, clinical trials, which would compare subjects taking sleep medications against those taking a sham drug, would be necessary, said study coauthor Dr. Daniel F. Kripke, a professor of psychiatry emeritus at UC San Diego now affiliated with the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla.
Zolpidem–sold as Ambien–was the most widely used prescription sleep medication used by study participants, followed by Restoril, the research says. But 4,117 of the participants got prescriptions for other sleep aids, including Lunesta, Sonata, benzodiazepines, barbituates and sedative antihistamines.
Given the millions of Americans for whom prescription sleep medication is a routine habit, the authors estimate that in 2010 alone, 320,000 to 507,000 deaths in the United States may have been associated with prescription sleep-aid use. Despite evidence that they may not add much to a night’s sleep, Americans in 2010 filled some 66 million prescriptions for “hypnotics and sedatives,” according to IMS Health, which tracks drug trends. That makes sleep aids the 20th most used class of prescription therapies.
Kripke acknowledged he was “very shocked” by the higher cancer levels he found in this large population. And stated, “For the particular sleeping pills studied, I do not see any time I would prescribe them.”
Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Zucker Hillside Hospital of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Manhasset, N.Y., said that people who take sleeping pills should not panic.
“Don’t stop taking these medications if you feel that you need them and are taking them with a doctor’s prescription, but be mindful that they shouldn’t be taken frivolously and there are alternatives such as avoiding napping, getting proper exercise, eliminating caffeine and doing other the kinds of things that improve sleep hygiene,” Fornari said.