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"Sleeping problems are a frequent side effect of heart failure and it is common for patients to be prescribed sleeping pills when they are discharged from hospital," study author Dr. Masahiko Setoguchi explained in a news release from the European Society of Cardiology.
However, "given that many heart failure patients have difficulty sleeping, this is an issue that needs further investigation in larger studies," he said.
In the study, the Japanese team examined the medical records of 111 heart failure patients admitted to a Tokyo hospital from 2011 to 2013. The patients were followed for up to 180 days after they left the hospital.
Patients who took sleeping pills -- drugs called benzodiazepine hypnotics -- were eight times more likely to be readmitted to hospital for heart failure or to die from heart-related causes than those who did not take sleeping pills, the researchers found.
Findings presented at medical meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, one expert agreed that the findings are cause for concern.
"The results from this small, single-center study raise a potential alarm about the use of benzodiazepines in a heart failure population," said Dr. Sean Pinney, director of the advanced heart failure and cardiac transplant program at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
He noted that many of these patients are aged and have other illnesses, such as lung disease. Pinney noted that other reports have found a higher risk of serious adverse events, generally, in elderly people taking sleeping pills. The new findings, which focus on people with heart failure in particular, "suggest that it may be best to avoid these drugs in this vulnerable population," Pinney said.
The study was to be presented in Athens, Greece, on Saturday at the Heart Failure Congress, the annual meeting of the Heart Failure Association and the European Society of Cardiology.
-- Robert Preidt
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