Ambien and other zolpidem products may be especially risky for older adults

January 24, 2011

Zolpidem, a sleep medication marketed as Ambien, Edluar, and other brand names, is one of the most widely used medications of its kind, with several billion doses prescribed worldwide. But its wide use doesn't mean that zolpidem is without side effects, which can be particularly of concern for older people.

Researchers tested zolpidem's effects on 25 adults by asking them to complete a cognitive skills test and to walk a balance beam. Participants were tested on three occasions: two hours after falling asleep on a 5 mg dose of zolpidem, the same time after taking a placebo, and after staying awake two hours past their normal bedtime.

Seven of the 12 older participants (average age 67) stepped off the beam after taking zolpidem; only three of the younger 13 participants (average age 22) lost their balance. Zolpidem also impaired cognitive functioning more than the placebo or staying awake. Interestingly, being awakened after taking a placebo had a stronger effect on the cognitive functioning of younger participants than on the older participants.

Because falls are a serious concern for older adults, these results show the importance of cautious use of zolpidem in high-risk individuals and fall prevention techniques, such as balance training. The study also shows how insomnia can affect cognitive skills even among younger adults. These findings also have safety implications when a person needs to respond to a sick child, a fire alarm and other emergencies.

Source: Danielle J. Frey PT, PhD, et al. "Influence of Zolpidem and Sleep Inertia on Balance and Cognition During Nighttime Awakening: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial." Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Volume 59, Issue 1, pages 73–81, January 2011.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 24 Jan 2011

Last Modified: 23 Jan 2015