Study: A study published in the BMJ Open journal reported that people taking 18 sleeping pills a year had a 3.5 times higher risk of dying compared to people who did not take sleeping pills. Patients who took more sleeping pills faced higher risks: those who took 132 or more sleeping pills a year had a 35 percent increased risk of cancer, and a death rate that was 5 times higher than the people not taking any sleeping pills. Types of prescribed sleeping pills included Ambien, Sonata, Lunesta, and Temazepam.
This study, conducted by Dr. Daniel Kripke, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, followed people for an average of 2.5 years. During this time, more than 10,000 of the participants were prescribed sleeping pills within the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania; these people were matched with participants who were not taking sleeping bills but were similar in age, lifestyle and underlying health issues.
Commentary: On February 28th, Dr. Astrid Pujari spoke on King 5 News about this study. One out of ten people in the US are taking sleeping pills or anti-anxiety medication. We know taking sleep medication has long-term potential risks, including daytime fatigue, disturbing sleep stages quality, interacting with alcohol, and potentially worsening other health issues, such as sleep apnea – which can be associated with heart arrhythmias, and high blood pressure. In general, prescribing sleeping pills should be regarded as a last resort instead of a first resort, and they should be used for the short-term – ideally for 6 weeks or less if possible.
The study reported in the BMJ Open Journal does have flaws. It wasn’t published in a peer review journal, which can be a red flag for doctors. This type of study is also known as a “cohort study” meaning it was designed to look at associations, not cause and effect. This means that even though there is an association between taking sleeping pills and death, it does not prove sleeping pills are responsible. In addition, it was done by looking at medical records, which can be misleading, instead of by assessing patients in person.
Tai Chi regularly (see the Tai Chi Article below) and progressive muscle relaxation are two natural methods you can try for better quality sleep that actually have some research to support them. Progressive muscle relaxation is a systematic way of alternately tensing and relaxing your muscles combined with breathing. Doing this before bed can help promote a restful state. Dr. Astrid Pujari’s Fundamental Meditations II CD contains a section of progressive muscle relaxation. Or check out this article on MedicineNet.com. In addition, check out the article below for more information on Tai chi and insomnia.
The take home message from this study is that we should use sleeping pills sparingly, and that more research is needed to examine whether sleeping pills are actually responsible for taking lives, or whether they are simply a marker for other issues that are responsible.