Sleep Aids Impair Cognition and Balance in Adults

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Adults who take the popular sleep aid zolpidem may be at greater risk for loss of balance leading to falls and cognitive impairment according to new research by the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Zolpidem is marketed under such brand names as Ambien, Zolpimist, Edluar, Hypogen, Somidem, and Ivedal.
The study, conducted by Associate Professor Kenneth Wright, involved 25 healthy adults who took zolpidem and then awakened after only two hours of sleep. The team measured balance using a technique known as a “tandem walk” in which subjects place one foot in front of the other with a normal step length on a 16-foot-long, six-inch-wide beam on the floor. All participants were provided with stabilizing assistance to prevent falls during the trials.

The participants also underwent computerized performance tests of cognition.

Read: Poor Night's Sleep Increases Odds of Stroke, Heart Attack

Prior to taking the sleep aid, the participants walked the beam with no loss of balance. However, after taking zolpidem, older adults were more than twice as likely to have balance issues compared to when they were tested after taking a placebo.

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The researchers also noted a significant impairment to cognition after taking zolpidem. Waking two hours after taking sleep aids enhances “sleep inertia” or grogginess that temporarily impairs working memory and decision-making, especially important if someone is awakened in the middle of the night due to fire alarm or a family member having a medical emergency.

Unexpectedly, this study shows that cognition impairments due to sleep inertia impacted younger people more so than older adults. This could be due to the dosage used for the study, explains Wright. The normal dose for older adults (and the dose used in the trial) is 5 milligrams. The usual dose for a younger person is 10 milligrams.

Read: Hospital Delirium Puts Elderly at Risk

The findings are important because falls are the leading cause of injury in older adults, and 30 percent of adults 65 and older who fall require hospitalization each year, said Wright, lead study author.

"This suggests to us that sleep medication produces significant safety risks," says Wright, who emphasizes that the authors are not suggesting that sleep medications not be used, but that adults and health care workers should be educated about the potential problems.

Source Reference: Journal of the American Geriatric Society.

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