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Some Sleeping Pills Increase Risk of Respiratory Cancers

Jun 24, 2015

New research shows that some of the most widely used sleeping pills taken worldwide could triple the risk of lung cancer.

The new study warns that the popular medications-benzodiazepines and "Z-hypnotic" drugs-are carcinogenic, the (U.K.) Daily Mail reports. Taking these drugs on a regular basis is linked to a higher rate of lung cancer and also a greater risk of cancerous growths in the nose, mouth, and windpipe.

The 20-year study, undertaken by a team of scientists from Norway, Finland and the U.K., analyzed findings from nearly 30,000 people. The more sleep medications a person takes and the longer the individual uses them, the greater the risk. Those who used 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. The risk appeared to triple for those taking the drugs for three years or more, the Daily Mail reports. Earlier studies had suggested a link but the studies were too small to allow a firm conclusion.

Benzodiazepines-a class of drugs that includes such widely prescribed medications as Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam)-can reduce anxiety and promote calmness, relaxation, and sleep. But prolonged use of benzodiazepines can lead to physical and psychological dependency, according to Web MD. Only short-acting benzodiazepines (with short-lasting effects) should be used to treat insomnia.

As of 2008, a study in the U.S. found 5.2 percent of American adults were taking the drugs, which have been linked to a variety of safety concerns, including Alzheimer's disease. In 2013, scientists warned that Z-hypnotic drugs, a newer class of tranquilizers that includes Lunesta and Ambien, increased the risk of heart attacks by up to 50 percent. They have also been linked with dangerous sleep behaviors, according to the Daily Mail.

For the study, the research team, which was led by scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, analyzed the records of thousands of public sector employees. Each subject was regularly questioned on a range of topics, including their sleep patterns and their use of all types of sleeping pills. The study followed up for nearly 20 years and results showed only a slight increase in the risk of all types of cancer in regular users of sleep drugs. But when the researchers looked at respiratory cancers-those affecting the airways-they found what they consider an alarming increase in risk. Sleeping pills have been linked to a higher number of infections and this may allow cancer cells to flourish. The researchers said the results may also have been affected by smoking rates, according to the Daily Mail.

The researchers said the association between sleep medications and increased mortality risk has been documented in more than 20 studies, and "a few studies have found that sleep medications are specifically associated with cancer deaths," according to the Daily Mail.

Cancer Research UK said it is still too early to draw conclusions about the dangers of sleeping pill use, but the authors of the new report say, "Further research is urgently needed to determine whether current sleep medications increase cancer risk."

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