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Popular sleep medications associated with increased risk of death

prescription sleep medicationsAMBIEN: This sleeping pill requires increasing doses to maintain the same effect and is difficult to discontinue. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
People taking certain prescription sleeping pills are four times more likely to die than people who do not—even if they are only taking low doses of the medication, according to researchers. The drugs are also linked with a significantly increased risk of cancer among people taking high dosages.

Researchers from the Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Center in La Jolla, Calif., and the Jackson Hole Center for Preventative Medicine, in Jackson, Wyo., tracked the survival of more the 10,500 people who were prescribed sleeping pills for approximately 2.5 years and then compared those rates with more than 23,500 people who had not been prescribed sleeping pills.  The average age of the participants was 54.

The study, published in the online journal BMJ Open, included common sleep medications such as benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepines, barbiturates and sedative antihistamines, which are sold commercially under names like Ambien, Restoril, Sonata and Lunesta.

Participants assigned low doses of any of these medications—less than 18 pills per year—were more than 3.5 times more likely to die than people who did not take sleep medication, while those prescribed between 18 and 132 pills were more than four times more likely to die.

For example, the researchers said there were 265 deaths among 4,336 people taking Ambien—the most frequently prescribed sleeping medication in the study—compared with 295 deaths among the 23,671 people who had not taken sedatives or sleeping pills in the same time period.

People who took more than 132 pills a year were not only five times more likely to die, but were also at greater risk of developing several types of cancer, and 35 percent more likely to be diagnosed with any type of cancer, overall.
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