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Study shows risk with sleeping pills; conclusion criticized
February 27th, 2012
06:30 PM ET

Study shows risk with sleeping pills; conclusion criticized

Common sleep medications may be linked to a shorter lifespan, according to a study released Monday in the British Medical Journal.

Researchers compared 10,500 adults who took prescription strength sleep aids with people who did not. Those who popped just one to 18 sleeping pills during the course of a year, had a 3.5 times increase risk of early death than those prescribed none. The increased jumped fivefold for people who took three sleeping pills or more per week.

"After controlling for several factors, we saw the risk rose in tandem with the more doses people consumed," says Dr. Daniel Kripke, study author and psychiatrist  at Viterbi Family Sleep Center in San Diego. "The mortality hazard was very high, it even surprised us."

But one sleep expert not affiliated with the study immediately sought to debunk the conclusions, saying it leads to unnecessary confusion to consumers.

"It is inadequate to try to associate someone who took as few as 5 pills a year at an increased risk of early death," says Dr. Russell Rosenberg, chairman of National Sleep Foundation and director of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine.

The control group participants did not suffer from sleep problems, and the study did not control for psychiatric disorders. "Their methodology was flawed and their control groups compare apples and oranges," says Rosenberg. 

Despite the limitations, researchers analyzed data several different ways–taking into account age, sex, weight and lifestyle–and the outcome remained the same. "More research is need to know exactly why sleeping pills are causing early death, but we believe the risks of taking sleeping pills outweigh the benefits," says Kripke.

In addition to risk of early death, participants taking sleeping pills had higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, obesity and high blood pressure. Researchers weren’t able to conclude if the sleeping pills specifically contributed to the increase.

"This study, while flawed because it has a relatively small sample size and does not fully address confounding variables, reminds us of that sleeping pills are not without risks and should be used cautiously," says Dr. Bryan Bruno, acting chairman from the Department of Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital, who is not affiliated with the study. "Sleep hygiene education should be emphasized more so that sleeping pills could be used less often and usually avoided on a chronic basis."

If you sleep less than 7 hours a night on a regular basis, you are building up a sleep debt that could affect your health. Cognitive behavior therapy is more successful than medications to aid in sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

It’s best to unwind for at least 45 minutes before going to bed. If your mind is racing, it’s harder to fall asleep. This includes avoiding stimulants like watching television, surfing the web, talking on the phone, or even cleaning your house. Try reading a book or magazine until you feel drowsy.

"If you can't fall asleep in 20 to 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something boring in dim light until you feel sleepy," suggests Kripke.

Also, sleep in a dark space. This is particularly important for people who work shifts that force them to sleep during daytime hours. The contrast between light during the day and dark at night helps keep your body's natural rhythms in check and will help you sleep longer. Purchasing 'black out' blinds or even using dark garbage bags over the windows can help.

"There are no perfect solutions that can be applied for everyone who has trouble sleeping," says Rosenberg. "But treatment can be personalized to suit a person's work schedule and lifestyle.”

Consult a sleep physician if you have three or more sleepless nights a week that persists more than one month, or have excessive daytime sleepiness or snore loudly.


soundoff (55 Responses)
  1. USA

    Nite. Sleep tight don't let the bed bugs bite : )

    February 28, 2012 at 06:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Super boss

      I'm 12 and realize tht my ismona will kill me when I'm close to 18 T-T

      November 27, 2012 at 01:17 | Report abuse |
  2. Bruce Rider

    my wife Marjorie, who passed away in Jan. 2012 was taking one Ambein per night, for 2 years, to get sleep due to bad back pain. this story caught my attention when i heard it, because she died suddenly and unexpectedly at a very early age 68 of a heart attack. she was just to the doctors 3 days before for her 3 month check up and he found her in good health. he even had a autopsy done on her so you can see why this story got my attention. i would be interested if they started a class action suit against the MFG.

    February 28, 2012 at 09:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Worf

      You wouldn't by chance want some free money, would you? It couldn't have been years of drinking or eating the wrong things or not getting enough exercise. It's obviously the Ambien. Time to get paid. Kaching!

      February 28, 2012 at 12:38 | Report abuse |
    • zdvsxfgdx

      Hey im sorry to hear about your loss. Peace be with you.

      February 28, 2012 at 17:27 | Report abuse |
    • AKHLK

      I'm sorry about your wife. Sometimes life is just too short.

      February 28, 2012 at 17:38 | Report abuse |
    • TO

      Sorry about your loss. I've been taking Ambien for years and have had severe weight gain, high blood pressure and other problems. I didn't realize any of these things until I read this article. I'm starting to really wonder how dangerous these pills are and have decided to stop taking them completely.

      March 1, 2012 at 20:59 | Report abuse |
    • Sandra

      So very sorry to read about your wife. I, too, suffer from chronic, severe pain, and have been offered Ambien (as well as a plethora of other drugs) but refuse to take any of the "new" drugs out there. The older, tried-and-true drugs may not have all the wonderful press, and - boo-hoo - the druanufacturers do not make nearly as much money on them as they do on new drugs, but the old ones work. And their side effects are known.

      Sleep should be a restorative, healing place of comfort from pain. I truly am sorry for your loss.

      November 27, 2012 at 03:49 | Report abuse |
  3. Sydney

    "In addition to risk of early death, participants taking sleeping pills had higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, obesity and high blood pressure."

    Um, gee – perhaps that could be the reason for the higher death rates?

    Let's go back to Correlation-Is-Not-Causation 101. I'm sure all the people who died also, say, ate breakfast sometime in the year before they died too, but that doesn't mean eating before noon is deadly.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Worf

      Exactly.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:40 | Report abuse |
    • Kabra

      Well said.

      February 28, 2012 at 23:33 | Report abuse |
    • JfromSC

      I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Worf likely uses sleep aids regularly. It is, after all, easier to viciously attack a man whose wife has just passed on than it is to look at your own behaviour. Either that, or you are a reprehensible human being. Your choice!

      February 29, 2012 at 11:41 | Report abuse |
    • TO

      No, but you can't argue against the evidence that people taking these pills had a death rate 6 times higher than those who were not taking it. Perhaps it is behavior or something else and not the pills directly, but there is an association that is significant. Anecdotally, I have noticed people I know taking them will also be on an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. You have to wonder if these combinations are contributing to these deaths.

      March 1, 2012 at 21:06 | Report abuse |
  4. Mathew

    The problem with this study, as pointed out above, is that you're comparing apples to oranges. If you were to take that same sample of people, regardless of sleeping medication, and ask them how many hours of sleep they had a night (not just lying in bed, but actual sleep), the study would say "people who get less sleep have a 3.5fold or 5fold increase in the chance of an early death. People believe that as well because other studies have shown this to be true. The lack of sleep causes more stress on the body system as a whole. The fact that these people used sleep aids shows that they probably have had years of difficulties sleeping prior to taking the medication, which means years of stress on the body. I am sorry for your wife Bruce, but you have to realize the amount of stress on the body system as a whole for your wife with constant back pain. A 3 month check-up probably did not look at blockage in the blood systems (calcium scan can help, but often are not done) that could help create heart attacks. However, your wife may also be one of the few who actually had an adverse reaction to the build-up of sleep mediation. 2 years of a sleep medication needed nightly starts to sound like pill-addiction. I truly am sorry for the loss of your wife and I hope autopsies can show the ultimate cause. I just choose to disagree with the study done here.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. hical

    everybody wants a quick fix ... pills to sleep, pills for depression, pills for "kids that are too active" .... the increase in the need for pills in the past decade is huge ... and the acceptance by the population that the need needs to be treated is even greater.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Portland tony

    "Consult a sleep physician .....blah ..blah..."! What is a sleep physician? Someone who slept during medical school? If you have a sleep problem, you probably have an underlying medical condition. You should see a specialist after talking to your primary care doctor.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ted Striker

      I spent a year working with a sleep physician (his original specialty was a heart doctor) and he did an amazing job finally helping me get a good night's rest. So I strongly disagree with your advice, as a bystander you are unfamiliar with the speciality, and it has been life changing for myself and many other people.

      February 29, 2012 at 15:17 | Report abuse |
    • xeno

      After 13 years in the field of sleep, I have to say you are incorrect. First, I have seen many people that have been put on sleep meds by their primary physician years before they are sent to a sleep lab to diagnose their sleep related problem, one that cannot be solved, and is often exacerbated, by sleep meds.
      Second, insomnia does not indicate an underlying medical condition that, once fixed, will fix the insomnia. I have seen otherwise healthy people lay in a dark quiet room from 10pm until 6am with not one second of neurological sleep.

      February 29, 2012 at 16:28 | Report abuse |
    • Ted Striker

      Xeno that was me, I failed my first sleep test (10-6) because I couldn't fall asleep. I just layed there the whole night. The second one I was able to give them good readings, but I only got a couple of hours of sleep, and I was only able to do that after not sleeping the previous day, wearing myself out with weight training, and a big dose of sleeping pills and chamomile.

      February 29, 2012 at 23:14 | Report abuse |
    • Portland tony

      @Xeno ...My point is to see your PCP before you talk to a specialist. Testing for underlying causes is what they do best. Besides ...with most insurance policies you will need to see your General or Primary care physician for a referral. If you "pass" all the tests eliminating an underlying physical problem, you may then be sent for a psychological Evaluation.

      March 1, 2012 at 15:25 | Report abuse |
  7. Martin Martinez

    Mother nature has already provided us with the finest sleep aid available, unfortunately our government as made it illegal . It's a wonderful flower called marijuana. Sleep like a baby.No hangover. They would rather us take their drugs and kill ourselves. As long as support their industry of deception.

    February 28, 2012 at 13:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JfromSC

      Amen, brother! Speak the gospel of the Ganja!

      Dear God... Why are American lawmakers afflicted with both prejudice *and* terminal stupidity? Don't answer, just throw a tornado at the RNC. Thank you, God!

      February 29, 2012 at 11:54 | Report abuse |
    • DCLaw-1

      Will the conspiracies of the Establishment ever end??!! Why cant we just be like Norway, Canada, France, China, and Russia, and all of those other countries where the ganj is legal? Ban the Bomb baby....Down with the Man!

      February 29, 2012 at 13:47 | Report abuse |
    • Ted Striker

      Can you guys stop using every article to hijack it and push your legalization agenda? Great you may or may not help people sleep but now they have to deal with the side effects and the lung trash.

      February 29, 2012 at 15:18 | Report abuse |
    • Ida

      I wholeheartedly agree – pot works because it leads the mind into a dream-like state. If the issue is racing thoughts, pot is the ticket. No doubt about it the risks and side effects are much less than with the pharmaceuticals.

      March 9, 2012 at 09:17 | Report abuse |
  8. anne

    I agree with Mathew. I have had chronic insomnia for many years. I have tried herbal, deep relaxation, blue pulse lights 9 that was a joke... and getting up out pf bed and reading ( I may as well just stay up) going back when I'm tired .....say around 5am and sleeping until the dizzy heights of 6am when I have to get up. I have tried otc medication and its when I think I may be slowly losing my mind and worry about the lack of sleep and my health with lack of sleep that I resort to prescribed medication! So I have a choice ......oh yes easy for those of you to say....' Just pop a pill and take the easy way out'.....are you serious?!! For some of us there is little
    relief and it is NEVER an easy way out. Martin, I have never taken marijuana, but honestly wonder if anything is worth a shot right now. Maybe I do have an underlying condition and require an anti depressant. Wait though, don't they hold risks too? Truth is I am confused and bamboozled by all the information!

    February 28, 2012 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Portland tony

      Take what kills you the least!

      February 28, 2012 at 15:33 | Report abuse |
    • Ted Striker

      Anne have you seen a sleep disorderds Doctor? I worked with one over the course of a year before we finally "broke the code," and I was finally able to fall asleep. It was like a miracle when it finally happened. Don't give up, you'll find your answer, but don't be afraid to find a good specialist.

      February 29, 2012 at 15:12 | Report abuse |
  9. Bill

    I have a birth defect (neurological) that has made falling and staying asleep very difficult for most of my lifetime. (I'm 50) I have taken sleep medications (prescription) regularly throughout my life, and now take one Ambien nightly to fall asleep. Some nights I'll wake up after getting only 3 hours of sleep, even :with: the Ambien. Without sleeping pills, I simply lie awake. The last time I tried to sleep w/o Ambien I was awake 24 hours, then :finally: slept, screwing up the times/dosages of several other medications that I have to take. Sleep meds are a fact of life for some of us; Articles like this fail to address the segment of the population that ::must:: take sleeping pills to get adequate rest, for medical reasons. I wish I didn't need them, but it's just a fact of life for me.

    February 28, 2012 at 17:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JfromSC

      If you know anyone who can get it, or live in a state where it is medically an option, try marijuana. It is non-toxic, natural, harmless, no hangover. Unfortunately, *all* pills are toxic, the question is how toxic, and how long one takes them. MJ is 100% *nontoxic*, you *cannot* OD or have permanent damage from the drug itself. Delivery system? Yes, but there are options.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:57 | Report abuse |
    • Ted Striker

      Bill I think I have the same exact problem you do. Did you try melatonin? It has been a lifesaver for me.

      February 29, 2012 at 15:07 | Report abuse |
  10. Pooty

    I have been on Temazepapam since 1997. I don't take it every night as that would be pointless sue to benzo tolerance. I do find this study more annoying than alarming however... Simply because it is simply flawed. And for the life of me I can think of any physiological change taking 4 restorril will create that will increase your mortality rate 5x...

    February 28, 2012 at 18:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Atlanta

    I think they told us in the article why they died – and it's not the sleeping pills. Its the fact that the people that received the sleeping pills had asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure and were obese and the people in the control group weren't. That's probably why the people who took the pills died and the people in the control group didn't.

    Quote from article: "In addition to risk of early death, participants taking sleeping pills had higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, obesity and high blood pressure. Researchers weren’t able to conclude if the sleeping pills specifically contributed to the increase."

    February 28, 2012 at 22:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Lawrence

    I finally found the solution to my sleep problem. I listened to my body and changed my lifestyle completely! I now go to sleep when I'm tired and wake up when I'm not tired. Unfortunately I had to start my own business in order to save my life. Now I wake up at 10am, eat a relaxing breakfast and open up the store by 11. I have a relaxing lunch when I'm hungry and go back to work until closing. If I need to sleep a little later I can always count on my manager. Unfortunately our work for massa like a slave till you die mentality almost did me in. Now I'm the massa!

    February 28, 2012 at 22:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Tom

    I agree, just sleep when you need to and let nature take it's course. Waking up at 4am to go to work is for the birds.

    February 28, 2012 at 22:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. rob

    So how in the HELL are we supposed to sleep! I truly have a problem with all of DEADLY SIDE EFFECTS these new meds cause to help people with common everyday ailments such as artritis, mingrain head aches eczema.....etc. And the people in these commercials are prasing these new drugs that may cause them to have a stroke , heart attack, seizure, organ failure.......etc as a result.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ggayle

      It took my husband about three months to retrain his body to fall asleep naturally. It can be done. These sleeping pills make you both physically and psychologically dependent on them.

      February 29, 2012 at 13:46 | Report abuse |
  15. Ggayle

    Ambien is one of the most dangerous drugs out there. My husband was on it and turned into a monster - you could actually watch him turn from a nice guy into someone I was afraid of, and afraid to leave our children with, within an hour of taking the Ambien. It also has fairly severe withdrawal symptoms. Ironically, it also didn't help him sleep. It more or less put him into a zombie-like state where he was up and down all night. He started to have black outs too, where he didn't remember where he'd been or how things had become broken (like his cell phone when he threw it across the room). Aggression is listed as a potential side effect, but after talking to people and researching on the web, I think its a LOT more common than people want to talk about. His doctor stopped prescribing it. But sadly, as long as there's money to made, it'll keep getting pumped into the system.

    February 29, 2012 at 13:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. bev

    The study Doctor asked if Dr. Rosenberg got funds from drug Co? Anyone know?

    February 29, 2012 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Ted Striker

    I've used melatonin for nearly 15 years now. It has been a lifesaver. My body clock is literally backwards. Imagine being up 2 days straight and still laying in bed wide awake at 11PM, unable to sleep. That was my life for many years. I was able to live like this by catching up on sleep on the weekends, when I was literally sleeping the whole weekend. Years later I learned that I was literally like this from inception, my mother explained that I was in the womb sleeping during the day, kicking at night, and the same thing when I was a baby, so this wasn't something that I learned or a bad habit.

    I went through very heavy cognitive behavior but that only takes things so far. When your hormones are literally reversed, it takes some intervention to correct them.

    I could not live the quality of life I do now without melatonin. My career choices and activities would be severley limited to whatever is avaialable that's alive and open between midnight and 6AM, without it.

    Not sure if melatonin was included in this study, but I'll gladly trade in any risks of a shorter lifespan for actually having close to a real life. I'll check in in another 15 years and let everyone know how I'm doing. :)

    February 29, 2012 at 15:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Aaron

      I'd second melatonin. Its the bomb. And hopefully as natural as it gets. Might have some side effects. but 1x3mg pill and I'm out like a light. its awesome. deep dreams. Sounds in the middle of the night? You'll wake up.. but you'll also be able to push it out of mind and fall right back asleep. Melatonin.. OTC and cheap. 3mg pills will be all you'll need for a good nights sleep.

      February 29, 2012 at 15:45 | Report abuse |
  18. b

    Ok, this is a vitamin issue. If your vitamins are off you will not be able to sleep, also if your carbs are too low, you will not be able to sleep. Your body needs to make GABA, that requires carbohydrates, and Vitamin B complex. Without that you won't be able to be at peace. My neurologist family member explained this to me long ago, as I suffered from insomnia.

    March 1, 2012 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. b

    Also, if your clock is off from working super long hours, try swimming for at least an hour, you will be so tired, you will fall directly asleep.

    March 1, 2012 at 00:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Jen Larkin

    People who suffer from sleeping disorders are more likely to take sleeping pills.

    People who suffer from sleeping disorders are more likely to have additional health problems that contribute to their sleeping disorder, including potentially fatal diseases.

    People who suffer from sleeping disorders do not get enough of the variety of sleep that allows our bodies to repair our cells, contributing to potentially fatal diseases.

    Unless they tested people with equivalent sleeping disorders and compared them based on sleeping pill use or no sleeping pill use, the study is invalid because it doesn't eliminate issues that we already know. And the people saying that the study is invalid are saying that they did NOT do that.

    March 1, 2012 at 06:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. MAr

    I take Lunesta to counter the nightmares from beta blockers..it's a vicious cycle.

    March 2, 2012 at 11:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. sleep aids

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    May 1, 2012 at 23:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. somnaprin

    i like it. thanks for sharing this blog
    Somnaprin is a best sleeping pill over all sleeping pills availableonline.Ifyou are looking a wonderful optionfor your sleep.

    May 11, 2012 at 02:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Jan Kelly

    I tried the Back two sleep natural sleep aid (http://www.backtwosleep.com). For a couple of months now. I am fine and in good health. Maybe before taking up a pill. Consult your doctor. Have a check up to know if it is good for your health.

    June 6, 2012 at 08:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. P

    Sleeping pills at prescription strength may help to sleep at night, however, may have hang over effects and sometimes cause dependency. Cognitive behavior therapy majority of the time has shown to be successful in any type of disorder. I agree, a racing mind is the worst when trying to go to sleep. Music therapy and Tai Chi are also ways to increase sleep.

    June 13, 2012 at 16:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. BB

    all i can say is i thank the Lord for Ambien or else I would never fall asleep. Best medication on the planet

    June 29, 2012 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. BB

    But if I dont sleep that can kill me too. SO what to do? I say take the medicine. No use being miserable while youre alive.

    June 29, 2012 at 11:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Maura Ci

    Death is a side effect of living.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Eve

    I have heard many people taking sleeping pills or Tylenol PM, which bad for you other organs. However, I just recently tried out BeautySleep. It's a 2oz drink that helps you fall asleep. It really works. I was skeptical about it at first, but then it works. BeautySleep does not have any calories and preservatives in it, which is also a plus for me. You guys should try it.

    July 31, 2012 at 14:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Nicole

    I agree with this conclusion. Patients who take sleeping pills may have other conditions, such as psychiatric disease or may use the Rx sleep aids for cancer related conditions. One must control these confounding variables before coming up with a direct correlation with sleep aids and mortality. As a side note, there are many other non prescription agents that are also very effective for sleep, such as melatonin and valerian. The Natural Standard website gives great reviews of complementary and alternative medicines for insomnia and provides the results of many clinical trials performed using these and other therapies. Note: These postings are my own and do not necessarily represent Natural Standard’s positions, strategies or opinions.

    August 30, 2012 at 17:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Melissa

    This article is full of it. I was in a car accident in 2004 that left it very difficult for me to sleep, hardly ever reaching rem sleep. I was so wiped out all the time that I could barely function most of the time, and I was sleeping upwards of 10 hours a day just to function at all. Last year I discovered melatonin and I take half a pill every night. I'm dreaming again, and I usually wake feeling rested. Provided that I'm actually sleeping 8 hours a night (instead of playing video games so I get only 6 hours a night), I feel just fine. So this article is full of garbage. Without melatonin, I'd be a mess. Using it is infinitely better than sleeping maybe 4 hours a night like I was and hardly ever dreaming.

    July 10, 2013 at 20:23 | Report abuse | Reply

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