Scripps Study: Sleeping pills believed a cause of 500,000 premature deaths annually

(March 1, 2012) Pick 10 people at random and ask them if they take sleeping pills. Chances are at least one of them is, according to new research – research that suggests the lone adult taking those pills is up to five times more likely than the other nine to die prematurely.

Death can come from any of several causes. Cancer is one of them. Medical scientists responsible for this new research found that the most frequent users of sleeping pills have a 35-percent greater chance of being stricken with cancer.

Ultimately, sleeping pills are believed to play a role in bringing about the untimely demise of as many as a half-million individuals annually.

These shocking findings were produced by investigators from the Viterbi Family Sleep Center operated by Scripps Clinic in San Diego, Calif., and from the Center for Preventive Medicine in Jackson Hole, Wyo. As reported in British Medical Journal Open, the team studied nearly 11,000 men and women of all ages (average: 54 years old) who were taking prescription sleeping pills to treat insomnia.

The typical participant in the study had been using the pills for that purpose an average of 36 months. Examined were the brands Ambien, Lunesta, Restoril, Sonata and others (the generic equivalents of those medications are zolpidem, eszopiclone, temazepam and zaleplon, respectively).

The Scripps study has now sparked worries that these U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved sleeping pills are unsafe: the researchers in their published article make the argument that the medications (formally labeled as hypnotics) carry risks that outweigh the benefits patients gain by taking them. Indeed, Britain’s counterpart to the FDA has already issued a statement declaring the sleeping pills at issue should be used to treat insomnia only when the condition is “severe, disabling, or subjecting the individual to extreme distress,” and, at that, use should be limited to no more than four weeks.

Patients participating in the Scripps study had a 4.4 times greater risk of premature death whether they took 132 sleeping pills over the span of a year, or as few as 18. The risk of premature death was 5.3 times higher for patients who took more than 132 pills per year – or at least one a night three times a week.

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