It is generally recommended adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Turns out one of the most common ways to increase the number of hours spent in Zzzz-land may have a significant downside: A University of Alabama at Birmingham study suggests older drivers who take sleeping pills containing zolpidem have a higher incidence of car crashes.

Sleeping less than seven hours a night is associated with an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even mental distress, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the CDC's recent surveys finds nearly two-thirds of 444,306 adults say they are sleeping seven or eight hours each night. However, nearly 35 percent reported getting less than six hours of sleep each night, while 8 percent reported nine hours or more. 

Yet, when people try to improve their sleep by taking pills, unintended consquences may follow. Aware of the high rate of sleeping pill use among people who have trouble sleeping, a research team guided by Dr. Gerald McGwin, a professor in UAB's department of epidemiology, hypothesized there might be an increased risk of car crashes among very old drivers using zolpidem-containing pills such as Ambien, Intermezzo, Stilnox, and Zonadin. And so they investigated in Alabama, one of the "sleep-deprived" states, according to the CDC report.

Alternative Sleep Aids

The researchers surveyed 2,000 north central Alabama sleeping pill users over the age of 70 who had driven within the past three months. The team compared each participant’s driving history to that of a similar (in terms of age and gender), non-sleeping pill user. Crunching the numbers, the scientists discovered a link between the pills and collisions.

Overall, the 5-year collision rate was higher for sleeping pill users than for non-users: 46 percent higher, the researchers say. Use of sleeping pills was highest in women and the oldest adults in the group. This translated to a 65-percent higher crash rate for women prescribed sleeping pills (compared to those who didn't) and a 124-percent higher rate for 80-year-olds prescribed pills. Among men who used zolpidem, their crash rate was 23 percent higher compared to non-users.

Based on these results, the team recommends doctors suggest behavioral treatments for their older patients, particularly women and those 80 or older, instead of immediately prescribing zolpidem as a sleep aid. Meditation, avoiding caffeine, supplements, and even cognitive behavioral therapy work for many people who find it difficult to power-down for the night, according to the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Source: Booth JN, Behring M, Cantor RS, et al. Zolpidem use and motor vehicle collisions in older drivers. SleepMedicine. 2016.