Can Ambien Amnesia Side Effects Impact Your Memory?

Ambien may cause memory loss by disrupting function of the hippocampus within the brain
Getty Images

Ambien, or zolpidem, is a commonly prescribed medication that is used as a sleeping pill to treat insomnia. There are a handful of common side effects, but can Ambien affect your memory and cause amnesia? Is there a risk of long-term memory problems like dementia or Alzheimer's disease? How might this work? Discover some of the side effects associated with Ambien use and alternatives that might help.

How Does Ambien Work?

Ambien is a useful medication that is available as a prescription sleep aid to treat insomnia. It is also known as zolpidem, Ambien CR, and Intermezzo. It works as a hypnotic drug, meaning that it induces a state of unconsciousness, similar to what occurs in natural sleep.

Like most sleep aids, Ambien has only modest effects on the amount of measurable additional sleep it provides. For example, research suggests that it only adds about 29 minutes of total sleep time on average when taken. It may allow a person to fall asleep faster by just 5 to 12 minutes.

What does it do then? It affects chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters. By affecting a neurotransmitter called GABA, it can calm the activity of specific parts of the brain. One of the areas that may be affected is the hippocampus. Along with other regions of the brain, the hippocampus is important in the formation of memory.

Ambien Amnesia: Does It Really Affect Memory?

It is known that Ambien may cause memory loss as a side effect, a symptom of amnesia, especially at higher doses. If you take the medication and do not go to bed, this may be more likely to occur. When you immediately go to bed, a loss of memory is typically inconsequential.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember lying awake for a few minutes before falling asleep, or after awakening during the night. There are many reports of people taking the sleeping pill and remaining awake and out of bed, however, with the affected person not recalling subsequent events.

Due to the association noted with other sleeping medications like diphenhydramine and benzodiazepines, there is some concern that Ambien could affect long-term memory and contribute to the development of dementia or Alzheimer's disease. This possible association has not been proven by research to this point.

It is possible that untreated sleep apnea accounts for the relationship between the use of sleeping pills and memory problems. This condition may cause both awakenings at night and recurrent drops in oxygen levels. This may stress vulnerable brain cell populations over time, including the memory system. As a result, it may not be the medication causing the risk for dementia, but rather the untreated sleep apnea.

Side Effects Associated With Ambien Use

Another problem occurs when someone who has taken Ambien gets up during the night. There are reports of complex sleep-related behaviors, similar to parasomnias, occurring while under the influence of Ambien.

These might include sleepwalking (which occurs commonly anyhow) or more troublesome behaviors, such as sleep eating, sleep driving, or sexsomnia. In a confused state, a person on Ambien may act in a way that is different from their waking behavior.

The parts of the brain that control movements may be functioning while full consciousness and the ability to generate memory is turned off. These behaviors may lead to unintentional harm, including falls among the elderly, or even legal consequences.

Finally, it is highly recommended that Ambien not be used with alcohol or other drugs that affect the brain.

This may worsen the effects on memory and could even lead to dangerous problems, such as disrupted breathing.

Once the medication has cleared out of your system, it is unlikely to continue to affect your memory during the day. It is recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that women use lower doses of Ambien due to the potential effects on morning function, especially driving.

If you find yourself having difficulties with recall after taking the medication, you may want to speak with your doctor and consider lowering the dose or tapering it off.

A Word From Verywell

Ambien can be a safe and effective medication to treat difficulty sleeping, but if it affects your memory in an adverse way, you should consider alternative treatments for your insomnia. Fortunately, treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) can be helpful without any risk of side effects.