Sleeping pill users are a third more likely to die prematurely than those who do not, a new Canadian study has warned.
Researchers at Laval University's School of Psychology in Quebec found that death rates were significantly higher among sleeping pill users and those taking tablets to ease anxiety.
"These medications aren't candy and taking them is far from harmless," Genevieve Belleville, who led the study, was quoted as saying by the Daily Mail.For their study, Dr Belleville and her team analysed 12 years of data on more than 12,000 Canadians. They derived the data from Canada's National Population Health Survey.
Pills used ranged from over-the-counter antihistamines to powerful prescription-only preparations such as Valium.
After taking into account alcohol and tobacco consumption, physical health, physical activity and depression, the researchers found that the drugs were linked to a 36 per cent increase in the risk of death.
Pill takers were more likely to succumb to every type of illness, from parasites to cancer, Dr Belleville said.
Giving possible explanations for the alarming statistic, she said that both sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs can affect a person's alertness and co-ordination, which could make them more prone to falls and other accidents.
Tablets might also suppress the respiratory system, which could aggravate breathing problems during sleep, particularly for those with heart problems. In addition, effects on the brain could affect judgement and moods, increasing the risk of suicide, Dr Belleville said. However, the study did not distinguish between those who were heavy users and those who only took them occasionally.
The study stressed on giving more prominence to cognitive behavioural therapy, a type of talking therapy, rather than medication to treat insomnia.
Dr Belleville said: "Given that cognitive behavioural therapies have shown good results in treating insomnia and anxiety, doctors should systematically discuss such therapies with their patients as an option.
"Combining a pharmacological approach in the short-term with psychological treatment is a promising strategy for reducing anxiety and promoting sleep."
However, British experts questioned whether the Canadian study had over-stated the risks. And they stressed that while sleeping pills should be prescribed prudently they still have a place in modern medicine.
They said that although the study had tried to account for the effect of health problems, marriage breakdowns and other factors, it is likely that these "underlying problems" still skewed the result.
The study was published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.