Individuals who take Ambien or Lunesta could be more than five times likely to die within two and a half years than someone who does not take a sleep aid, according to the findings of a new study.
Researchers from the Scripps Clinic Virterbi Family Sleep Center in La Jolla, California, and the Jackson Hole Center for Preventative Medicine in Jackson, Wyoming, looked at a class of drugs known as hypnotics and evaluated the rates of death and cancer among users.
According to findings published last week in the British Medical Journal, users not only face an increased risk of death with Ambien and other sleeping medications, but may also face an increased cancer risk as well.
Ambien (zolpidem) is a prescription medication manufactured by Sanofi-Aventis, which is one of the best selling drugs in the United States. It is heavily marketed through direct to consumer advertisements to help people fall asleep and stay asleep with an extended release version.
The medication is part of a class of drugs known as hypnotics or sporifics, which induce sleep. They are typically prescribed to treat insomnia, but are also sometimes used as anesthesia. In addition to Ambien. the class also includes Lunesta, Restoril, Sonata, barbiturates and sedative antihistamines.
An estimated 6% to 10% of the adult population used one of these medications at some point in 2010, making it one of the most widely used classes of drugs in the United States.
Since 1979, some studies have suggested that those who take hypnotics had a higher death rate than those who did not.
The latest research looked at a database on patients in the Geisinger Health System (GHS), which serves about 2.5 million people in 41 mostly rural counties of Pennsylvania. The researchers narrowed that to 10,531 patients who had been prescribed a sleep drug and compared them to 23,676 people who had not. They found that people who took more than 132 doses per year were 5.3 times more likely to die in the next 2.5 years than those who did not take the drugs. Those who took 18 or fewer doses per year were still 3.6 times more likely to die than non-users. Additionally, those prescribed to take hypnotics were 35% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer.
The research does not look at how the subjects died, but it did control for health problems like asthma, obesity and diabetes that increased the risk of death. However, there was no data that could link the drugs directly to the deaths or explain the difference in death rates.
According to the researchers conclusions, Ambien, Lunesta and similar drugs may have been associated with 320,000 to 507,000 excess deaths in the U.S. in 2010 alone. But the causes of those deaths is not reported in the study.
“We cannot be certain what portion of the mortality associated with hypnotics may have been attributable to these drugs, but the consistency of our estimates across a spectrum of health and disease suggests that the mortality effect of hypnotics was substantial,” the researchers concluded. “Even 10,000 excess deaths caused by hypnotics would be too many.”
The researchers called for a randomized clinical trial of sufficient duration and size seeking definitive evidence for or against the mortality rate of sleep drugs.