Australian actor Heath Ledger’s death Tuesday is putting insomnia and the
dangers of misusing prescription sleep aids in the spotlight.
Ledger’s housekeeper and a massage therapist found the 28-year-old actor
dead, lying naked and face-down on his bed, according to police. Six
different types of prescription drugs, including sleeping pills to treat
insomnia, were found in his bedroom. An autopsy Wednesday was inconclusive.
Further test results will not be known for several days.
Insomnia is the most common sleep complaint among Americans. It can be
either acute, lasting one to several nights, or chronic, even lasting months
to years. According to the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at
the National Institutes of Health, about 30% to 40% of adults say they have
some symptoms of insomnia within a given year, and about 10% to 15% of
adults say they have chronic insomnia. That lack of sleep has meant big
business for pharmaceutical companies, which spent more than $329 million in
2005 advertising prescription sleep aids. And those efforts have a big
payoff—Americans spend approximately $2 billion each year on sleeping drugs,
and $20 billion on other sleep-related products.
Although prescription sleep aids are helpful, they can be dangerous if
misused. Doctors warn that abusers could suffer from memory loss and
blackouts. It is also not uncommon to experience dizziness, nausea,
headaches, and vomiting, among other symptoms.