Sleeping Pills Tied To Higher Risk Of Death

A new study in the British Medical Journal looked at the mortality rates associated with the use of “hypnotic drugs,” or sleeping pills. Older studies have looked at this before and found that people using sleeping pills were more likely to die, but had some shortcomings which this study corrected. The results:

  • Patients receiving prescriptions for zolpidem, temazepam and other hypnotics suffered over four times the mortality as the matched hypnotic-free control patients.

  • Even patients prescribed fewer than 18 hypnotic doses per year experienced increased mortality, with greater mortality associated with greater dosage prescribed.

  • Among patients prescribed hypnotics, cancer incidence was increased for several specific types of cancer, with an overall cancer increase of 35% among those prescribed high doses

 

The researchers adjusted the data to remove effects caused by age, gender, smoking, body mass index, ethnicity, marital status, alcohol use and prior cancer. However, without more effort, research like this finds correlation, not causation: it’s hard to tell whether the sleeping pills caused the higher risk of death, or whether the patients with sleep problems have a higher risk of death to begin with and would’ve ended up the same without the sleeping pill.

To combat this problem, the study also controlled for known causes of death and the association between sleeping pill use and mortality remained significant. Or, in science speak: “neither the level of individual health nor the presence of particular categories of comorbidity explains the bulk of the hazard associated with the use of hypnotic medications.” However, they still can’t be sure that they didn’t leave something out, and an unknown factor is causing both the insomnia and higher mortality. Still, about 8% of Americans use sleeping pills, so caution is warranted. The paper closes with this — emphasis added:

The meagre benefits of hypnotics, as critically reviewed by groups without financial interest would not justify substantial risks. A consensus is developing that cognitive-behavioural therapy of chronic insomnia may be more successful than hypnotics. Against meagre benefits, it is prudent to weigh the evidence of mortality risks from the current study and 24 previous reports, in order to reconsider whether even short-term use of hypnotics, as given qualified approval in National Institute for Clinical Excellence guidance, is sufficiently safe.

 

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From The British Medical Journal, via Slashdot

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