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Study finds sleeping pills associated with higher risk of cancer and death

By Linda Searing,

Sleep aids

Study suggests possible cancer and death association with sleeping pill use

THE QUESTION Prescription sleep medications, also called hypnotics, rank among the most-advertised and most-prescribed drugs in the United States. Might these pills be doing more than helping people get a good night’s sleep?

THIS STUDY analyzed data on 34,205 adults (average age, 54), including 10,531 people prescribed such sleeping pills as Ambien, Lunesta, Restoril and Sonata. Compared with people who took no sleeping pills, those taking the drugs were more likely to have died in a 21 / 2-year span, with the risk rising along with the amount of medication. People who were prescribed 18 or fewer sleeping pills a year were 3.6 times as likely to die as those who took none of the drugs; risk was 4.3 times as high for those prescribed 18 to 132 doses and 5.3 times as high for those taking more than 132 pills a year. Also, people taking the highest doses were 35 percent more likely to have developed a major cancer, not including melanoma, during that period. The increased risks for death and cancer were found to be not attributable to preexisting diseases.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Adults who take sleeping pills. Studies have found that more than a fourth of U.S. residents do not get enough sleep, and about 10 percent of the population has chronic insomnia. The study authors wrote that an estimated 6 to 10 percent of Americans take sleeping pills.

CAVEATS The results suggest an association, but the study was not designed to prove absolute cause and effect. The data did not include information on social and psychological disorders because that information was protected by law in the state where participants lived. The data were based on the number of doses prescribed in a year, not the actual number taken.

FIND THIS STUDY Feb. 27 online issue of BMJ Open (bmjopen.
bmj.com).

LEARN MORE ABOUT sleeping pills at www.mayoclinic.com and www.fda.gov/forconsumers (type “side effects of sleep drugs” in the “Search Consumer Information” box).

— Linda Searing

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.

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