Researchers followed 14,117 people in Canada with an age range of 18-102 (the average age was 44). Every two years, the participants were asked two questions:
1. In the past month, did you take tranquilizers, such as Valium (diazepam) or Ativan (lorazepam)?
2. In the past month, did you take sleeping pills, such as Imovane (zopiclone), Nytol (diphenhydramine), or Starnoc/Sonata (zaleplon)?
Over the course of 12 years, the use of tranquilizers ranged from 2.99% to 4.60% and the use of sleeping pills ranged from 3.16% to 6.02%.
The overall mortality rate for those who didn't take any tranquilizers or sleeping pills was 10.52%. The mortality rate for those who took tranquilizers or sleeping pills was 11.55%.
After considering tobacco and alcohol use and the physical and mental health of participants, the study found that tranquilizers and sleeping pills were linked to a 36% increase in mortality. Furthermore, those taking the drugs were more likely to succumb to every type of illness, from parasites to cancer.
So why the increased risk of premature death in those taking these pills? One explanation could be that benzodiazepines can impair reaction times, coordination and other cognitive functions, which can lead to falls and other accidents. The pills can also affect the respiratory system, which can aggravate other sleep related breathing disorders. It's also worth mentioning that many insomniacs or those suffering from anxiety will self medicate with alcohol or other drugs, which can intensify the depressant effects of benzodiazepines in particular.
Dr. Belleville concludes that the public needs to be better informed about the risks associated with sedatives (we agree). He goes on to say something that we couldn't say any better ourselves, so we'll quote him verbatim:
Cognitive behavioral therapies have shown good results in treating anxiety and insomnia. Combining a pharmacological approach in the short term with psychological treatment is a promising strategy for reducing anxiety and promoting sleep.
If you are concerned about any medication you are currently taking, speak with your doctor. Do not stop taking any medications or change your dosage regimen without speaking with your doctor first.
Last updated: August 12, 2011