A new research study reveals that some of the most widely used sleep medications could triple the user’s risk of lung cancer.
The widely used 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 to a greater risk of cancerous growths in the nose, mouth, and windpipe.
The more often these medications are taken and the length of time they are used increase the risks. Those who took 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 those studies were too small to allow a firm conclusion.
The new study, undertaken by undertaken by a team of scientists from Norway, Finland and the U.K., followed nearly 30,000 people for almost 20 years. The research team, led by scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, analyzed the records of thousands of public sector employees. Subjects were regularly questioned on a range of lifestyle topics, including sleep patterns and use of sleeping pills. Study results showed only a slight increase in the risk of any type of cancer in regular sleep medication users, but when the researchers focused on respiratory cancers—those affecting the airways—they found a worrisome increase in risk. Sleeping pills have been linked to a higher number of infections, which may allow cancer cells to flourish. The researchers said the results may also have been affected by smoking rates, according to the Daily Mail.
Benzodiazepines, the class of drugs including such widely prescribed medications as Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam), can reduce anxiety and promote relaxation and sleep. But Web MD warns that prolonged use of benzodiazepines can lead to physical and psychological dependency, and can have side effects, especially if the drugs are combined with alcohol. Only short-acting benzodiazepines (with short-lasting effects) should be used to treat insomnia.
A study in the U.S. in 2008 found that 5.2 percent of American adults used these drugs, which have been linked to a number 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 associated with dangerous sleep behaviors and lingering effects according to the Daily Mail.
In commenting on the study, Sarah Williams, health information manager of Cancer Research UK, said it is still too early to draw conclusions about the dangers of sleeping pill use, but the new study’s authors say, “Further research is urgently needed to determine whether current sleep medications increase cancer risk.”