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Are There Age-Based Differences in Zolpidem Abusers?

79073478 (1)Zolpidem is the generic, non-branded name for a sedative-hypnotic sleep medication found in the widely prescribed product Ambien, as well as in other lesser-known products prescribed in the U.S. In recent years, there has been a clear uptick in the number of people using this medication who require some sort of treatment in an emergency room. In a study published in September 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from Texas State University used information from an annual federal project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to determine that there are age-based differences in the types of people most likely to engage in zolpidem abuse.

Zolpidem (Ambien)

Sedative-hypnotic medications get their name because they can either sedate a person (make them sleepy) or produce a tranquilizing effect that decreases their anxiety levels. Zolpidem is specifically intended to treat people who have problems falling asleep on their own. It produces its sleep-promoting benefits by decreasing the rate of communication between the brain’s nerve cells. The best-known zolpidem products, Ambien and Ambien CR, come in tablet and extended-release tablet form, respectively. Other forms of the medication include an orally administered spray (sold under the brand name Zolpimist) and a dissolvable, under-the-tongue tablet (sold as Intermezzo and Edluar).

Most people who use zolpidem-based products as prescribed by their doctors don’t experience any serious side effects, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes. When side effects do occur, they can include such things as daytime sleepiness, lightheadedness, unusual irritability, hallucinations in one or more senses, somnambulation (better known as sleepwalking), and an impaired ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Zolpidem is particularly dangerous when used in combination with substances that increase its suppressing impact on normal brain function. Specific substances noted for their ability to trigger serious harm in combination with zolpidem include opioid painkillers and specific types of anxiolytic (i.e., anti-anxiety) medications.

Spike in ER Visits

In May 2013, SAMHSA reported a tripling of zolpidem-related visits to American emergency rooms between 2005 and 2010. Roughly three out of every four of these visits involved users of the medication over the age of 44. In addition, women were considerably more likely than men to require emergency treatment after taking zolpidem. In 2010, roughly 50 percent of all zolpidem users treated in an emergency room had also taken some other mind-altering drug or medication. More than one-third of all users who ended up in an ER combined the medication with another substance that substantially reduces nerve cell communication inside the brain.

Age-Related Differences in Zolpidem Abuse

Some of the zolpidem users who require emergency treatment do not intentionally misuse the medication; however, others abuse zolpidem in one way or another. In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, the Texas State University researchers used data from three years of the SAMHSA-administered National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2009, 2010 and 2011) to help identify the characteristics of people most likely to become zolpidem abusers. A total of 174,667 individuals contributed information to the survey during this time period. Specific factors in zolpidem abuse explored in this very large sample included age at the initiation of abuse, involvement in other forms of substance use or abuse, and the presence of serious, potentially diagnosable mental health problems.

After examining all of the potential factors, the researchers concluded that the vast majority of zolpidem abusers share common risks through involvement in other forms of substance use/abuse and the presence of serious mental health issues. However, they also concluded that the chances of being exposed to some of these risk factors vary considerably with age. In particular, the chance of being involved in other forms of substance use/abuse is highest in teenagers who abuse zolpidem and decreases over time. This fact holds true for the odds of participating in zolpidem abuse in the previous year, as well as for the odds of participating in zolpidem abuse at any other point in time.

Interestingly, the study’s authors concluded that the mental health risks associated with zolpidem abuse remain active to more or less the same degree, regardless of the age group of zolpidem users under consideration. Based on their findings, they believe that the underlying reasons for abusing the medication may change as any given person grows older. They also believe that health professionals screening for likely abusers of zolpidem should focus their attention on people who use other types of substances, as well as on people who have significant mental health issues.

Posted on December 16th, 2014

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