The authors wrote: “Sleep disturbances are common and increasing in prevalence. The use of sleep medications has grown, and they are often used over a long period, despite the relative lack of evidence from randomised controlled trials.”
“These drugs may work well in some people with sleep disturbances over several years, but the findings of this study should give pause for thought to prescribing clinicians and patients thinking about taking prescription meds for sleep disturbances in middle age”, they add.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers of sleep medication have long highlighted apparent evidence from randomised controlled trials that drugs can improve sleep quality.
However, the new BMJ study points out that many of these were small and only conducted on a short-term basis. Typically they lasted less than 24 weeks and included fewer than 100 patients.
They warned that while sleeping pills are mostly prescribed only for a short period, many patients take them for years on end.
A spokesperson for The Sleep Charity said: “While prescription drugs can help with short-term insomnia, and help to break a cycle of poor sleep, it doesn’t tackle the root problem. They really just mask the symptoms.
“With long-term insomnia, lifestyle or behaviour changes usually need to happen which is why cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is an effective treatment.
“Unfortunately, there is very little support for people struggling with sleep difficulties which is why many turn to prescription medications.”
Doctors have been warned for years that they should limit the prescription of sleeping pills.
As far back as 2013 the Royal College of General Practitioners called on family doctors to regularly review patients who had been prescribed benzodiazepines such as Valium.
Sleeping pills prescribed to millions of people every year do not work in the long term, a study has found.
Scientists found no difference in sleep quality or duration between those who took the medication for one to two years.
The findings applied to a range of types of pharmaceuticals, from benzodiazepines, and Z-drugs to other hypnotics.
The research team said that rather than taking such medication long term, patients should receive cognitive behavioural therapy to help them sleep.
Meanwhile, the UK’s premier insomnia body, the Sleep Charity, said on Tuesday night that the study showed that drugs failed to tackle the root problem.
In the Western world, insomnia is thought to affect between 10 and 30 per cent of adults at any one time, according to the Economic and Social Research Council.
The group has also calculated that one in 10 British adults regularly take some kind of sleeping tablet, with an accompanying risk of addiction.
For the new study, published in BMJ Open, a team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston compared 238 women who had started using medication to tackle insomnia with 447 matched women who were not on sleeping drugs. The average age was 49.5.
Sleep disturbances were defined as difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakening and waking up early, all ranked on a five-point scale.
On average, both groups of women reported difficulties on one in three nights, waking frequently two in three nights, and waking up early one in three nights.
Overall, more than 70 per cent of women reported disturbed sleep at least three times a week, regardless of whether they were on sleep medication or not.
Around half of the women were current or former smokers and one in five were moderate to heavy drinkers, both of which may affect sleep quality.