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.

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