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Insomnia? Maybe Skip That Sleeping Pill

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Caregivers with ongoing sleep problems are sometimes prescribed sleep-inducing medications. But you might want to make sleeping pills a last resort, rather than reaching for them first, in light of a surprising new study linking even occasional use to an increased risk of death and cancer.

Those who take just 18 sleeping pills a year had a threefold higher risk of death, the study found, and regular users had a fourfold higher risk of death in regular users. A significant (35 percent) increase in cancer cases was also found. The study was published in the February 27 BMJ Open.

Previous studies have hinted at similar links between hypnotic sleeping pills and mortality. (Hypnotics are drugs that actually put you to sleep.) This was the first to cast the same shadow on newer formulations, such as zolpidem (Ambien) and temazepam (Restoril), as well as older ones, like eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), and triazolam (Halcion). Melatonin, which helps people relax rather than causing sleep, was not included in the study.

"Sleeping pills are hazardous to your heath and might cause death by contributing to the occurrence of cancer, heart disease and other ailments, psychiatrist Daniel F. Kripke of the Viterbi Family Sleep Center at Scripps Health in San Diego, the lead author, said in a Medical News Today report. He also referred to sleeping pills as possibly as "risky as smoking cigarettes."

It's important to note that this wasn't a cause-and-effect clinical trial but an analysis of existing data based on observational studies. Researchers examined data on nearly 40,000 patients (average age: 54) who were followed for an average of 2.5 years. More than three times as many sleeping-pill users as nonusers died. It's possible that some other mechanism is responsible for the deaths, researchers say, although the link still held even after they adjusted for all sorts of factors, including age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, body mass index, smoking, alcohol use, prior cancer, and many other chronic conditions.

The report doesn't specify if stress was factored out, for example. Most caregivers know that chronic stress (like depression) feeds insomnia and weakens the body, making it vulnerable to a slate of diseases in ways that are hard to quantify.

Given that one in 10 Americans uses sleep aids -- which were designed in the first place for critical short-term insomnia, not long-term use -- this red-flag news will, at minimum, trigger medical conversations about whether they're being over-prescribed and over-used. Sleep experts agree it's safest to first exhaust alternate, non-drug ways to fix sleep problems and to ease the stress that so often underlie disrupted sleep.

Image by Flickr user Andrew Morrell Photography under a Creative Commons license.