We've all heard the tales of Ambien making people do crazy things like eat cans of cat food in the middle of the night, only to have no memory of it in the next morning, but now comes the scary news that your sleeping pills might actually have a very depressing side effect: death. This will certainly not be welcome news to the many of us who aren't afraid to rely on a little prescription strength relief for our occasional (or, you know, constant) insomnia.
This awful news comes from a study conducted by researchers at the Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Center in California. They found that the use of several commonly prescribed sleeping medications was associated with a significant increase in death. These meds included benzodiazepines, such as Restoril; non-benzodiazepines, like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata; barbiturates; and even sedative antihistamines. The study's authors say that in 2010 up to ten percent of the adult population in the U.S. took sleeping pills, which they estimate could have been associated with between 320,000 and 507,000 extra deaths in this country. If that isn't terrifying enough to keep you up all night, just keep reading.
The research focused on a population in Pennsylvania served by the largest rural integrated healthcare system in America. They selected patients from that system who'd received at least one sleeping pill prescription between 2002 and 2006. That left them with 10,500 people. They then compared their death rates to roughly 23,600 other people from the system who were matched for age, level of health, and other factors, but who had never received sleeping pills.
What they found is frightening. Even at relatively low rates of prescription—taking fewer than 18 doses per year—the people who'd taken pills had a risk of death that was 3.5 times greater than the people who had not taken them. Yikes. For people who'd taken more doses (between 18 and 132 per year), the risk of death was higher: they were four times more likely to be dead by the end of the study. For people who took more than 132 doses per year, the risk of death was five times greater. Raise your hand if your rushing to flush your Ambien down the toilet as you read this...
Related to the death factor is the equally terrifying cancer factor. Previous studies have found a connection between sleeping pills and cancer, and this study found more of the same. The people who took sleeping pills were 35 percent more likely to be diagnosed with any kind cancer, even though they'd been at no greater risk when the study began. They had particularly high instances of lymphomas, lung, colon, and prostate cancers. Temazepam, which is marketed under the name Restoril, was associated with the highest risk of cancer overall.
So why exactly are people on sleeping pills dying? Well, there could be a number of explanations. Cancer is one, but sleeping pills can also increase depression, which could lead to suicide. They impair your ability to function properly, meaning there is added danger in driving, etc. They can cause sleep apnea, which can lead to heart problems. They can make you sleepwalk, which can lead you into some pretty life-threatening situations. They can make you sleep-eat, which can lead to "poor diet and obesity," though it's hard to imagine you could eat enough in the middle of the night to kill you. Good God, you know what? Maybe a better question is what are the ways in which sleeping pills are not killing us?
Of course, before we panic and run screaming to the pharmacy demanding a refund, let's take a minute to ingest these results with a grain of salt. For one thing, since it was a cohort study, these results have their limitations. While there's certainly an association between taking sleeping pills and dying, that doesn't necessarily mean the pills are causing the death. Though the fact that the more doses were taken, the higher the risk of death points strongly toward the pills being the root of the problem. Ideally, someone could do randomized, controlled trial to establish the death risk definitively, but who the hell is going to volunteer for that trial? Here take these pills, they might or might not kill you. Either way, more research is clearly necessary to get to the bottom of what's happening and to evaluate the ways in which we change our methods for handing these pills out.
For now, however, this is all we have to go off of, and it doesn't exactly paint the prettiest picture of what sleeping pills can do for you in the long run. The best part about all of this new information is that it has the lovely effect of both causing us to lose sleep trying to calculate the exact number of times we've taken a sleeping pill and what exactly our risk of death is, while also depriving us of the very cure for our sleeplessness—the sweet, sweet relief of a well-timed pill. Ugh. Goodnight, cruel world!
Hypnotics' association with mortality or cancer: a matched cohort study [BMJ Open]
Sleeping pills increase risk of death, study suggests [The Guardian]
Image via Ugo Cutilli/Shutterstock.