Certain commonly prescribed sleeping pills are associated with a more than fourfold increased risk of death, even among those taking fewer than 18 doses a year, indicates research published in the online journal BMJ Open.
And these drugs are also associated with a significantly increased risk of cancer among those taking high doses, the study shows.
In 2010 between one in 20 and one in 10 adults took a sleeping pill in the US alone, say the authors, who tracked the survival of over 10,500 people with a range of underlying conditions, who were prescribed a range of sleeping pills for an average of 2.5 years between 2002 and 2007.
The drugs included benzodiazepines, such as temazepam; non-benzodiazepines, such as zolpidem, eszopiclone, and zaleplon; barbiturates; and sedative antihistamines.
The survival of these patients, whose average age was 54, was then compared with that of over 23,500 people matched for age, sex, lifestyle factors, and underlying health problems, but who had not been prescribed sleeping pills over the same period.
After taking account of factors likely to influence the results, including age, sex, weight, lifestyle, ethnicity and previously diagnosed cancer, the results pointed to a link between these drugs and an increased risk of death, even at relatively low doses.
Those prescribed up to 18 doses a year were more than 3.5 times as likely to die as those prescribed none, while those prescribed between 18 and 132 doses were more than four times as likely to do so.
And those taking the most doses (132+ a year) were more than five times as likely to die as those prescribed none, indicating that the level of risk rose in tandem with increasing doses, say the authors.
These associations were found in every age group, but were greatest among those aged 18 to 55.
Supplementary material posted alongside the paper shows that, although the overall numbers of deaths in each group were quite small, there were clear differences among them.
For example, there were 265 deaths among 4,336 people taking zolpidem, compared with 295 deaths among the 23,671 people who had not taken sedatives or sleeping pills.
Those taking the highest number of doses were also at greater risk of developing several types of cancer, and 35% more likely to be diagnosed with any type of cancer, overall. This association was not explained by pre-existing poor health, the data showed.
The authors point out that studies showing association don't necessarily prove cause and effect. But their findings back up previous research showing an increased risk of death among users of sleeping pills, they say.
Agreement is beginning to build that alternatives to sleeping pills for the treatment of insomnia may be warranted, they write.
And they ask if it isn't 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."
BMJ Open editor in chief, Dr Trish Groves, comments: "Although the authors have not been able to prove that sleeping pills cause premature death, their analyses have ruled out a wide range of other possible causative factors. So these findings raise important concerns and questions about the safety of sedatives and sleeping pills."
BMJ-British Medical Journal: http://www.bma.org
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
UN assistant secretary general says deadly outbreak, which has been blamed on UN troops, demands decisive action
Caffeine is the drug many of us can't live without – but do you have any idea how much is in your daily hit?
Warmer temperatures are causing malaria to spread in the African and South American highlands, traditionally havens from the disease, scientists say.
How best to achieve success is a highly contentious issue, but politicians should remember that a good start in life is key
A second child seems to have been cleared of the AIDS virus, thanks to heavy-duty drugs started just hours after birth. This spring researchers plan to test that approach in 60 more newborns.
A report finds that azodicarbonamide wasn't just in Subway's bread: It's in hundreds of foods. While it has been linked to asthma in factory workers, the additive poses no known risk to consumers.
Army initiative to research suicides in the US military released its first three studiesAmanda Holpuch
The luxury fibre can be fashioned into screws and plates that could hold broken bones together while they heal, before biodegrading when no longer needed
Middle-aged people on a high-protein diet are at greater risk of dying from cancer, claims a study, but critics say firm evidence is lacking
In an exclusive interview with National Geographic, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, shares her concerns about the consequences of legalizing the drug.