Long-term use of insomnia drugs may not improve your sleep quality

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In a new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, researchers found that long-term use of prescription meds for insomnia doesn’t seem to improve disturbed sleep in middle-aged women.

They found no difference in sleep quality or duration between those who did and didn’t take these meds for 1 to 2 years.

Disturbed sleep—difficulty falling and/or staying asleep and waking early—is common. An estimated 9 million adults in the US alone say they take prescription meds to try and get a good night’s sleep.

Poor quality sleep is linked to ill health, including diabetes, high blood pressure, pain and depression, and various drugs are prescribed to induce shut-eye.

These include benzodiazepines, Z-drugs which include zolpidem, zaleplon and eszopiclone, as well as other agents mostly intended for other conditions (off-label use), such as quelling anxiety and depression.

Previous research found that many of these drugs work in the short term (up to 6 months), but insomnia can be chronic, and many people take these drugs for longer.

In the study, the team tested the effectiveness of drugs used to tackle insomnia over the long term in middle-aged women who developed sleep disorders. The women’s average age was 49.5.

During an average of 21 years of monitoring, some 238 women who started using medication to tackle insomnia were matched with 447 women who didn’t take these drugs.

Both groups of women reported difficulty falling asleep on 1 out of every 3 nights, waking frequently on 2 out of 3 nights, and waking up early on 1 in every 3 nights of the week.

More than 70% of women in both groups reported disturbed sleep at least 3 times a week.

To begin with, sleep disturbance ratings were similar between the two groups of women.

Those taking prescription meds for their sleep problems had average scores for difficulty falling asleep, waking up frequently, and for waking up early of 2.7, 3.8, and 2.8 respectively.

This compares with equivalent ratings of 2.6, 3.7, and 2.7, respectively, for those not taking prescription meds to get a good night’s sleep.

After 1 year, average ratings among those taking the meds were 2.6, 3.6, and 2.8, respectively. The equivalent average scores among those not using prescription meds for their sleep problems were 2.3, 3.5, and 2.5, respectively.

None of the 1-year changes was different between the two groups. And after 2 years there were no big reductions in sleep disturbances among those taking prescription meds compared with those who didn’t.

The team says these drugs may work well in some people with sleep disturbances over several years, but the findings of this study should give pause for thought to prescribing clinicians and patients thinking about taking prescription meds for sleep disturbances in middle age.

If you care about sleep and your health, please read studies about how to sleep well when you are getting old and findings of pink noise may boost deep sleep, improve memory in older people.

For more information about sleep and wellness, please see recent studies about this sleep apnea therapy may help treat depression and results showing that this sleep problem may lead to high blood pressure.

The study is published in BMJ Open. One author of the study is Daniel H Solomon.

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