By: Pat Hagan
Sleeping pills taken by millions of people across the world could treble the risk of lung cancer, alarming new research shows.
The study warns that taking the drugs on a regular basis is linked to a higher rate of deadly tumours.
Findings from nearly 30,000 people also revealed they raise the risk of cancerous growths in the mouth, nose and windpipe.
Scientists said that the more sleep medication a person takes and the longer they are on them, the greater the danger.
Those regularly using sleeping pills at least twice a week were nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to develop cancer of the airways than non-users.
And in those using the drugs for three years or more the risk appeared to treble.
The 20-year study, involving scientists from Norway, Finland and the UK, is thought to be the largest yet to highlight the cancer risk from using medicinal sleep aids.
A number of smaller studies have suggested a link but were too small to draw firm conclusions.
The research does not prove the popular pills, called benzodiazepines and ‘z-hypnotic drugs’, are carcinogenic.
But in a report on their findings the scientists warn: ‘Further research is urgently needed to determine whether current sleep medications increase cancer risk.’
Around one in ten Britons uses sleeping tablets, with doctors prescribing £50 million of the pills every year.
Temazepan is the benzodiazepine that’s often prescribed for insomnia in the UK.
And other common brand names include Xanax and Valium.
Annual prescriptions of these drugs, which include zolpidem, zaleplon and zopiclone, total around five million.
And in the US, as of 2008, a study found 5.2 per cent of American adults were taking the drugs.
But they have been dogged by safety concerns.
Benzodiazepine drugs have been linked to Alzheimer’s.
And in 2013, scientists warned Z-hypnotic drugs increased the risk of heart attacks by up to 50 per cent.
They have also been linked with dangerous sleep behaviours.
For the latest study, a team led by scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health analysed the records of thousands of public sector employees.
Each was regularly quizzed on lifestyle topics, including sleeping patterns and the use of all types of sleeping pills, and followed up over nearly 20 years.
The results showed only a slight increase in the risk of all types of cancer if sleep drugs were used regularly.
But when scientists looked at respiratory cancers – those affecting the airways – they found a worrying rise in risk.
Sleeping pills have been linked to a higher number of infections which may allow cancer cells to flourish.
The researchers stressed that the results may also have been affected by smoking rates.
They said: ‘The association between the use of sleep medications and an increased mortality risk has been documented in more than 20 studies.
‘Although most research has focused on all-cause mortality, a few studies have found that sleep medications are specifically associated with cancer deaths.’
Responding to the findings Cancer Research UK said it is still too early to draw conclusions about the dangers of sleeping pill use.
Health information manager Sarah Williams said: ‘The best advice to reduce the risk of cancer remains the same – not smoking, eating a balanced diet, keeping a healthy weight, cutting down on alcohol, being active and enjoying the sun safely.’
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.