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As Sleep Aid Prescriptions Surge, Experts Worry About Side Effects

By Stephanie Saul
THE NEW YORK TIMES

Americans are taking sleeping pills like never before, fueled by frenetic work days that do not go gently into a great night’s sleep, and lulled by a surge of consumer advertising that promises safe slumber with minimal side effects.

About 42 million sleeping pill prescriptions were filled last year, according to the research company IMS Health, up nearly 60 percent since 2000.

But some experts worry that the drugs are being oversubscribed without sufficient regard to known, if rare, side effects or the implications of long-term use. And they fear doctors may be ignoring other conditions, like depression, that might be the cause of sleeplessness.

Although the newer drugs are not believed to carry the same risk of dependence as older ones like barbiturates, some researchers have reported what is called the “next day” effect, a continued sleepiness hours after awakening from a drug-induced slumber.

Fully 10 percent of Americans report that they regularly struggle to get to sleep or to stay asleep throughout the night. And more and more are turning to a new generation of sleep aids like Ambien, the bestseller, and its newest competitor, Lunesta. Experts acknowledge that insomnia has become a cultural benchmark — the side effect of an overworked, overwrought society.

“Clearly, there’s a significant increase in people who report insomnia and, from my perspective, that is the result of our modern day lifestyle,” said Dr. Gregg Jacobs, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard. Or at least that is an impression on which drug makers are clearly trying to capitalize, he said.

And that concerns him and some other researchers who warn that despite their advertised safety, the new generation of sleep aids can sometimes cause strange side effects.