It would be a dream come true if we could all be good sleepers. But for many of us who are not, sleeping pills are a help.
Or are they?
Actually, they are usually of limited effectiveness. All have potential risks and none have been tested for long-term safety. That’s why most sleep aids have been approved only for short-term use.
Now a study in the online journal BMJOpen has linked prescription sleeping pills to a surprisingly high risk of premature death.
The risk of dying over a 2.5-year period was four times higher among sleeping pill users—a finding that held up after the data were adjusted for many health and lifestyle factors. Even occasional users had a higher death rate, though the risk increased with more frequent use.
This is not the first study linking sleeping pills to higher death rates. Many factors are involved. The drugs can cause falls and car crashes, even the next day, and may worsen depression. The study also found that people taking at least 130 pills a year had a 35 percent increased risk of cancer. But the cause of most of the excess deaths remains a mystery.
This study was observational and thus doesn’t prove that sleeping pills shorten lives. Though the researchers controlled for many variables, there may well be other things about pill takers that put them at risk. They may simply be in poorer health.
If you take sleeping pills often, consult your doctor about lifestyle changes that may improve your sleep. In any case, take the smallest dose that works for you. Don’t drink if you plan to take a pill, and don’t drive the next morning, even if you don’t feel groggy.
No matter what the ads suggest, there is no “best” pill. Your goal should be to not need sleeping pills. Your doctor should not simply renew your prescription without discussing your progress and the possible side effects.