But adults who take sleeping pills in even small numbers over their lifetimes may be nearly four times more likely to die earlier compared to those who are not prescribed sleeping pills, according to new findings published Monday in the British Medical Journal. And those prescribed sleeping pills may also be more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, the study found.
Researchers looked at electronic medical records of nearly 35,000 patients, fewer than half of whom took such FDA-approved sleep medications as Ambien, Restoril, Lunesta, and Sonata. They found that even those who look fewer than 18 sleeping pills a year were at greater risk of death, compared to those who were not prescribed sleeping aids.
An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from insomnia and other sleep disorders, which can keep them from functioning normally during the day. Untreated sleep disorders can lead to conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
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Such consequences from sleep disorders leave many doctors asking whether the findings from this study really suggest that sleeping pills are to blame, or whether those who take sleeping pills are at higher risk because of health conditions that potentially brought on the sleeping problems.
The study did not say why the patients were prescribed the sleeping medications, whether the patients were evaluated by a sleep specialist, or whether they were also undergoing other types of treatment for any underlying health conditions -- all important factors when weighing an increased risk of death, said Dr. Steven Scharf, professor of medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
"Most chronic conditions, including cancer, are associated with insomnia and mortality," said Scharf. "Who knows what the cause here was?"
Six to 10 percent of Americans were prescribed sleeping pills in 2010, according to the study.
Sleep disorders can also be considered symptoms of underlying mental and physical conditions.
In fact, those in the study who were prescribed sleeping medications had higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions which may contribute to sleeplessness.
"I think the underlying conditions which may require sedative-hypnotics are the culprits, not the medicines themselves," said Dr. Scott Nelson, a family practice physician at Cleveland Family Medicine.
Many experts said these findings should not prompt patients to stop taking their medications.
"I think sleeping pills are helpful when there are short term stressors," said Dr. Richard Colgan, associate professor in the department of family and community medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Sleeping pills can be helpful for those who work unusual shifts, and for those who travel across time zones, said Colgan.
But the medications are not without side effects -- including drowsiness, impaired judgment, depression and heart problems. Misuse can be fatal. And, according to Dr. Lee Green, a professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan, the risks outweigh the benefits.
Medication to treat sleeplessness is not as important as treating the underlying condition, he said.
"Sedation worsens sleep apnea, for example, and we know sleep apnea is associated with risk of death," said Green. "We tend to think that a sleeping pill once in a while is harmless, but there's no such thing as a medication free of risk."