Increased Death, Cancer Rates in Patients Taking Sleeping Pills

A new study from Scripps Clinic, published in the British Medical Journal, indicates that sleeping pills may be associated with higher death rates, up to 4.6 times higher, as well as an increase in cases of cancer. Adults who take hypnotics for insomnia, as few as 18 times a year, might face increased mortality risk.

The two most common sleeping pills studied were zolpidem (brand name Ambien) and temazepam (brand name Restoril). Sleeping pills have become more and more popular for a good night’s sleep. The pharmaceutical industry expanded by 23% in the sleep medication segment from 2006 to 2010. The industry generated approximately $2 million in annual sales during this time.

As of January, 2012, there were 24 published studies relating to the mortality risks of sleeping pills. We now have a new study of more than 10,000 patients who took sleeping pills and more than 20,000 matched patients who did not take sleeping pills. The patients who took sleeping pills died 4.6 times as often during follow-ups averaging 2.5 years. Patients taking higher doses (averaging over 132 pills per year) died 5.3 times as often. Even for the patients who took less than 18 pills per year, had very significantly increased mortality, 3.6 times than the patients who took no hypnotics.

In addition, those who averaged over 132 sleeping pills per year were 35% more likely to develop a new cancer.  This being said, it is true that showing that sleeping pill use is associated with early death does not prove that the sleeping pills are the cause of the deaths. It is not known if these sleeping pills were taken with alcohol, or in conjunction with other medications. In most cases, patients aged 65 years and older generally experience sleep apnea more than younger patients. Additionally, older patients have other health issues, which could be contributing to their death, as well.  If sleeping pills cause even a small part of the excess deaths, and cancers are associated with their use, then hypnotics are too dangerous to use.

As far as the evidence that sleeping pills cause cancer in people, according to the FDA, there were nine new skin cancers and four other cancers among study participants, but no new cancers among those who only received placebo. Even considering that there was over two times as much exposure to the sleeping pills, it appears that this indicates that new sleeping pills caused cancer.

There are some people with severe sleep deprivation who cannot function during the day without a few hours of sleep. Some patients say the newer sleeping pills that have a shorter window of action have changed their lives. It is very difficult and unproductive to function during the day without a few hours of sleep, needless to say unpleasant for the people around you. It must be difficult to keep a job when you cannot get a good night’s sleep. It is ironic that for some people, these sleeping pills may increase the risk of death when for others, these sleeping pills are a life saver!

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