My best friend is a really light sleeper, and once she wakes up that’s it – there’s no going back. So, she applies an intense discipline to getting a full night’s sleep. She’s found the right mattress; ensures the house is at the right temperature; uses earplugs for her snoring husband. And most nights she takes a sleeping pill.
We laugh about it often, but like the vast majority of us, inadequate sleep is not an option for her. That is, I used to laugh about it until I read a recent study published in BMJ Open linking taking sleeping pills to both an increased risk of early death and of cancer.
The higher the level of medication the higher the risk, the study reported. But, even participants who took less than 18 pills a year were three times more likely to die than those who didn’t use the sleep aids.
The study followed 10,000 people for 2 1/2 years. Risk was found for every age group but was greatest among 18- to 55-year-olds. Given that an estimated 6 to 10 percent of U.S. adults take sleeping pills to fall asleep, the study’s results can’t be dismissed.
“One of the problems inherent in studies of this nature is that a variety of other factors and conditions can influence the results, and it is nearly impossible to account for all of these conclusively,” says Karl Doghramji, MD, director of the Jefferson Sleep Disorders Center. “The finding of a higher mortality rate in people who take sleeping pills can, therefore, have been caused by a third, possibly undefined factor.”
Dr. Doghramji adds: “Although an impressive study, the association isn’t conclusive. As the researchers themselves suggest, they will need to conduct another study to see if the association between sleeping pills and increased health risks are real or not.”
What should you do if you are taking one of these medications?
“It’s important to remember the significant dangers associated with insomnia itself – problems with daytime sleepiness, daytime performance impairments, difficulties with concentration, memory and mood, etc.,” Dr. Doghramji says. “If a doctor recommends that a patient with such issues take a sleeping pill to address insomnia, then that patient shouldn’t rush to stop taking his/her medication solely based on this study. Instead, individuals on sleeping pills should discuss the relative merits and drawbacks of sleeping medications with their doctors.”
Dr. Doghramji’s advice to his own patients will be that this study is just too preliminary to serve as the sole basis of clinical decision-making, and that many other factors must enter into the decision of whether to take, or not to take, a sleeping pill.
I shared the report with my friend, and she is making an appointment with her doctor to discuss her risks and optional alternatives to sleeping pills.
Perhaps the best course is to discuss ways to improve your sleep without medication such as setting up a routine for bedtime, exercising regularly and avoiding going to bed hungry. Check out this more complete list of suggestions for dealing with insomnia.
Getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of living a healthy life.
If you or someone you care about is having issues, you can schedule an appointment at the Jefferson Sleep Disorders Center, to help determine the cause of your insomnia or other sleep problems such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or narcolepsy.