Do Sleep Aids Cause a Higher Risk of Mortality?

A new study warns you to be extra careful about sleeping pills — and to use them only when necessary.

While many researchers and doctors disagree with the study done by the Scripps Clinic Sleep Center in La Jolla, California, the lead authors are not backing down on their claims. The authors found that people who take sleep aids such as Ambien — even as few as 18 times a year — have a four-fold increase in mortality. Other studies have found similar results. “The results were pretty surprising, and as far as I know, the mortality…risks are not reflected in any [sleep aid] labels,” said Dr. Daniel Kripke, co-director of research at the Scripps Clinic. (1)

Relying on Their Aid

It is unlikely, however, that sleep aid users will stop taking the pills. Nearly 10% of Americans rely on sleep aids to get a good night’s sleep, many of them used legitimately under the care of a doctor. Pharmaceutical companies stand by their products. The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association responded by saying, “Prescription medicines undergo thorough clinical trials regulated by the FDA and are FDA-approved on the basis of their safety and effectiveness. Biopharmaceutical research companies also work closely with the FDA throughout the life of approved medicines, continuing to monitor the medicines for safety issues.” (2)

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Study authors, however, argue that sleeping pills only give users a few more minutes of sleep in most cases, but someone who takes the pills may be psychologically reliant on them. “We don’t know why, but people who take these drugs have an exaggerated idea of whether they are good for them,” Kripke says. (1)

The Connection Between Sleep Aids and Mortality

One thing to note about this study is that researchers are not claiming that sleeping pills cause death. Rather than a cause-and-effect relationship, it suggests an association. For various reasons, people who take sleep aids are more likely to suffer from depression, mood disorders or sleep apnea; they’re at greater risk of mixing medications, or even overdosing. It’s not that sleeping pills are dangerous per say, it’s that researchers have found differences between those who fill sleeping aid prescriptions, and those who don’t.

Always Consult a Doctor

Experts do not suggest that people ditch their sleep aids too quickly, because many people do receive health benefits from them. We should, however, take a closer look at our use of such medications. Study co-author Robert Langer said that this study “was conducted to the most rigorous standards” and that they “do not advocate wholesale ditching of sleeping pills,” but that the evidence “strongly suggests that people should look to other means for the treatment of insomnia. Encouraging people to ignore evidence such as this does not serve [their] best interests.” (3)

Sources

(2) Could Ambien increase your risk of death?

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