Written by Dr. Dave Hnida, CBS4 Medical EditorWe Americans must do a lot of tossing and turning at night because we sure love our sleeping pills. Last year, more than 66 million prescriptions were filled for products like Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta.

Now comes a study that says taking sleeping pills increases your risk of dying — from a whole bunch of causes including heart disease, stroke, cancer, infection … you name it.

Worse, the study says as little as one sleeping pill a year can up your risk. One.

Now, before your fall out of bed with worry, it’s important to take a really close look at what this study in the British Medical Journal really has to say, or does not say.

For instance, it does say that people who take sleeping pills have a higher risk of death. (The highest rate was associated with people who took sleepers 2 to 3 times a week regularly).

But it does not say that the sleeping pills directly caused the deaths. So how can this be?

First thought: people with underlying medical problems have problems sleeping, and it is the underlying disease that leads to an early grave. They just happen to take sleeping pills.

On the other hand, take someone with something like sleep apnea who takes a sleeping pill. Here’s a person who, by taking that sleeping pill, ups their risk of having a heart attack or stroke since their breathing patterns will worsen tremendously during sleep. Very bad deal.

And when it comes to accidents, we know that some people who take sleeping pills can be at higher risk of a  car wreck or falling down the stairs, even the next day.

So let’s add the whole thing up: if you take a sleeping pill, are you going to die?

Mix it with alcohol or other medications … or overdose, and sure, you are playing with fire.

Medical conditions such as sleep apnea — you shouldn’t be on sleeping pills to begin with.

But how about worry over cancer, heart disease, or even infection? This is a stretch of a study to assume a direct link that one causes the other. Certainly, it’s not a good idea to be gobbling sleeping pills on a regular basis, but take an occasional sleep helper as directed and using caution and odds are you don’t need to have nightmares about your risk of death. There is no proven cause and effect.


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