The recent death of Whitney Houston at the Beverly Hilton Hotel once again brought to the forefront the adverse effects of substance abuse, including sleep medications. It is well known that the use of sleeping medications, often mixed with other drugs and/or alcohol has resulted in purposeful as well as accidental death. However, a new study has reported that individuals taking limited amounts of prescription sleeping medication are four times more likely to die than those who do not. The results of the study by researchers from the Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Center in La Jolla, California, and the Jackson Hole Center for Preventative Medicine, in Jackson, Wyoming were published February 27 in the online journal BMJ Open.
The study group was comprised of 10,529 individuals who took prescription sleep medications and 23,676 matched controls who did not. The subjects were followed for an average of 2.5 years between January 2002 and January 2007. The average age of the participants was 54. The study included commonly-prescribed sleep medications such as benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and sedative antihistamines; these medications are marketed under proprietary names such as Ambien, Restoril, Sonata, and Lunesta. The researchers found that individuals who were prescribed low doses of any of these medications (less than 18 pills per year) were more than 3.5 times more likely to die than individuals who did not take them; furthermore, individuals who were prescribed between 18 and 132 pills per year were more than four times more likely to die. Another surprising finding was that individuals who consumed more than 132 pills per year were not only five times more likely to die, but were also at greater risk of developing several types of cancer, and 35% more likely to be diagnosed with any type of cancer, overall. The users and non-users were well matched in age, gender, period of observation and BMI, and did not significantly differ in ethnicity, marital status or smoking status.
The most frequently prescribed sleep medication in the study group was Ambien. A total of 4,336 individuals took that product; 265 deaths occurred in that group compared to 295 deaths among 23,671 individuals who had not taken sedatives or sleeping pills during the same time period. The researchers also noted that the increased death risks were not related to any pre-existing disease.
The researchers noted that an estimated 6-10% of US adults took a hypnotic drug for poor sleep in 2010 and that hypnotic (sleep-inducing) drugs are among the most widely used treatments in adult medicine. They also noted that a cancer prevention study by the American Cancer Society reported that both cigarette smoking and hypnotic consumption were associated with an increased risk of death. They theorized that the increased risk of death may be due to side effects of the medications, such as: driving while asleep and unaware; sleep apnea, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke; and potential associations with pneumonia.
Take Home Message:
This study points to an increased risk of death in individuals who only occasionally take sleeping medications and do not overdose. Thus, it would be prudent to avoid them entirely. Other methods are available to help one sleep such as a warm bath before retiring, a herbal tea, or stress management. A healthy life style together with the avoidance of sleeping medications and tranquilizers is the way to go.
Click on this link to read the complete study.