Uh Oh

04.01.14

Anti-Anxiety and Sleeping Pills Increase Risk of Death, New Study Reports

A new report says patients who take drugs like Xanax, Valium, and Ambien have a higher risk of dying. What does this mean for the 40 million U.S. adults suffering from anxiety disorders?

Anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills significantly increase your chance of dying, according to new research from the UK published in the BMJ.

The findings are especially important for the U.S., where anxiety disorders (like panic disorder or social phobia)—the most common mental illness in the country, affecting 40 million adults, or 18 percent of the population—are increasingly treated with prescription drugs.

For seven and a half years, researchers there followed 34,727 patients in primary care who were prescribed anxiolytic drugs like Xanax, Valium and Klonopin, and sleep aids like Ambien and Lunesta. They found more than 3.3 times as many patients, prescribed anti-anxiety or sleeping pills, died in the follow-up period. Hazard ratios were largest for benzodiazepines—the most commonly prescribed drug class.

“Researchers found more than 3.3 times as many patients, prescribed anti-anxiety or sleeping pills, died in the follow-up period.”

Researchers controlled for factors linked with early deaths including age, smoking and drinking habits, other prescriptions and socioeconomic status, and most importantly, sleep disorders and anxiety itself.

The BMJ study is just the latest in a line of research suggesting that these drugs can have dangerous, possibly permanent side effects. Not only are they addictive, studies have shown they are associated with cognitive and psychomotor impairments, falls, and unintentional injuries. 

“That’s not to say that they cannot be effective,” Scott Weich, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Warwick said in the study’s release. “But particularly due to their addictive potential we need to make sure that we help patients to spend as little time on them as possible and that we consider other options, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to help them to overcome anxiety or sleep problems.”

Use of anti-anxiety drugs can also quickly build a tolerance—in as little as two weeks—that renders them ineffective.