Commonly prescribed sleeping pills boost the risk of dying more than 300 percent, even among people who take fewer than 18 a year, says a study published in the online journal BMJ Open. The risk is even higher for those who take them more often. In addition, sleeping pills boost the risk of developing cancer.
The study followed the survival rates of 10,500 patients with pre-existing conditions who were prescribed a variety of sleeping pills for an average of 2.5 years. The sleeping pills included benzodiazepines (temazepan), non-benzodiazepines (zolpidem, eszopiclone, and zaleplon), barbituates, and sedative antihistamines (Benadryl).
Their survival rates were compared with those of more than 23,500 people who were matched for pre-existing conditions, age, sex, and lifestyle factors. Even after taking into account factors such as previously diagnosed cancer, age, weight, and ethnicity, the results still indicated a link between sleeping pills and an increased risk for dying, even when only low amounts of the drugs were taken.
Patients prescribed as few as 18 doses of sleeping pills each year were 3.5 times more likely to die than those who were prescribed no pills, and those prescribed between 18 and 132 doses were more than four times as likely to die. Patients who took the most sleeping pills — more than 132 doses in a year — were more than five times as likely to die.
Although the link between sleeping pills and death was found in all age groups, it was the strongest among people 18 to 55 years old. And there have been numerous studies that have found at least a 25 percent increase among people who take sleeping pills, including a survey published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in 2010 that found an increased risk of death. On the other hand, there are no studies that suggest sleeping pills lower mortality risk.
Dr. Jerry Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, compared the reduction of lifespan in those who regularly use sleeping pills to smoking cigarettes. "Chronic sleeping pill use might be roughly comparable to cigarette smoking in its effect on lifespan," he wrote in the Huffington Post. "The life shortening effect of chronic sleeping pill usage has now been reported in at least 12 studies published in respected peer reviewed publications."
In addition, the latest study associated sleeping pills with a significant increase in cancer risk. People who took higher doses raised their overall risk of being diagnosed with cancer by 35 percent. It's not the first study to link sleeping pills and cancer. A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that sleeping pills increase the risk of cancer, especially skin cancer. The study found eight non-melanoma and four other malignant tumors in participants who took sleeping pills compared to none in the participants who took a placebo. Other studies found that laboratory animals given sleeping pills developed kidney, thyroid, and testicular cancer as well as suffered chromosome damage.
According to the authors of the new study, as many as 10 percent of U.S. adults took at least one sleeping pill in 2010.