Annual Sleeping Pill Death Toll May Top 500,000 in U.S.

All health practitioners have seen patients who develop a dependence on prescription anti-insomnia medications. This apparent increase in mortality risk, however, comes as a surprise.

The usual caveats apply, in that this study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. However, the researchers quoted in this MedPage article seem quite concerned.

The use of hypnotic sleep aids was associated with a three- to five-fold higher mortality risk compared with the risk for nonusers, even when the prescription was for a small number of pills, investigators reported.

A prescription for 0.4 to 18 doses per year was associated with a mortality hazard ratio of 3.60 compared with patients who had no prescriptions for hypnotics.

The hazard jumped to 5.32 for patients prescribed more than 132 doses a year, investigators reported online in BMJ Open.

“Rough order-of-magnitude estimates … suggest that in 2010, hypnotics may have been associated with 320,000 to 507,000 excess deaths in the U.S. alone,” Daniel F. Kripke, MD, of the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, Calif., and co-authors wrote. “From this nonrandomized 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.”

Patients who used hypnotics most often also had an increased risk of cancer, with an overall cancer increase of 35% among those prescribed high doses.