Common sleeping pills linked to early deathHigher doses also linked to increased risk of cancer
People who take commonly prescribed sleeping pills may be four times more likely to die prematurely, according to the latest research.
High doses of sleeping pills also increased risk of cancer by about a third, said the researchers from the Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Centre, California, and the Jackson Hole Centre for Preventative Medicine, Wyoming.
The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, analysed data on more than 10,500 men and women living in California who took a range of sleeping pills for an average of 2.5 years between 2002 and 2007. Patient survival was then compared with that of over 23,500 people matched for age, sex and lifestyle but who had not been prescribed sleeping pills over the same period.
The drugs prescribed included benzodiazepines, such as temazepam and diazepam; non-benzodiazepines, such as zolpidem, zoplicone, and zaleplon; barbiturates and sedative antihistamines.
People prescribed up to 18 doses of pills a year were more than 3.5 times as likely to die as those prescribed none, the study found.
But those prescribed between 18 and 132 doses of pills were more than four times as likely to do die compared with people who had not been prescribed sleeping pills.
[Related story: Doctors should ask patients about insomnia]
The risk of dying prematurely increased with increasing doses of sleeping pills, as those taking the most doses (132+ per year) were more than five times as likely to die as those prescribed none, the researchers found.
Those taking the highest number of doses were also 35 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with any type of cancer, which could not be explained by pre-existing poor health.
Although the findings showed a statistical association between taking sleeping pills with an increased risk of death, it still did not establish a cause of death, the researchers said.
They said it might be time to "reconsider whether even the short term use of hypnotics, as given qualified approval in National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence [NICE] guidance, is sufficiently safe."
[Related feature: Habits that lead to sleep loss]
Some 2.8 million prescriptions were dispensed for temazepam and nearly 5.3 million for zopiclone in England in 2010.
Malcolm Lader, professor of clinical psychopharmacology at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, said people should not panic as a result of the findings, as more studies were needed.
"I agree that these drugs do have problems but I find some of these results quite difficult to accept.
"The main one is that with 18 doses a year you have three times the mortality - that's quite incredible because you would have people dropping like flies.
"The study needs to be replicated in a different sample and I think we need to hold judgement until we have further studies.
"What we don't want is people stopping sleeping tablets and then going through a very disturbing period of insomnia.
"People should discuss this with their GP but should not under any circumstances stop taking their medication."
This article was published on Tue 28 February 2012
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