The safety of commonly prescribed sleeping pills is under scrutiny again after new research linked the drugs, used by millions of people worldwide, to a fourfold increased risk of dying.
Occasional insomniacs who took fewer than 18 pills per year were three times more likely to die than those prescribed no sedatives, according to the study published in British Medical Journal Open. The risk of dying increased in relation to the dose, so the more pills a person took, the greater the risk. And those taking high doses, an average of nine pills per week, were 35 per cent more likely to develop cancer.
Sleeping pills, or hypnotics, are commonly prescribed by GPs despite growing evidence that non-addictive, psychological therapies are safer and more effective in the long-term. Nearly 13million prescriptions were dispensed by UK pharmacists in 2010, explained by the fact one in four Britons is dissatisfied with their sleep and one in 10 suffers from a sleep disorder.
Observational studies like this one do not prove cause and effect, but randomised control trials cannot be carried out for ethical reasons. This research is the 19th study to show a statistically significant increased risk of death among people taking sleeping pills. Controlled studies have linked hypnotics to depression, suicide, falls, car accidents, and respiratory diseases. The 1979 American Cancer Prevention Study first linked the drugs, along with tobacco, to cancer deaths.
The researchers tracked the survival of 10,529 people with a range of underlying conditions, who were prescribed a range of sleeping pills such as temazepam and zolpidem for an average of 2.5 years. The survival of these patients, average age 54, was compared with 23,676 people matched for age, sex, weight, smoking, alcohol and health problems, who had not been prescribed sleeping pills.