Insomnia in older adults

Insomnia in older adults

Older adults need about seven hours of sleep at night. But they often have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. They frequently wake up early and are not able to go back to sleep. This is due in part to normal changes of aging. We just don’t spend as much time in the deep phases of sleep.

But for many older adults—as many as 50 percent—sleep difficulty becomes chronic. It creates emotional distress and fatigue, making it difficult to function well during the day. Moreover, ongoing insomnia has been shown to contribute to depression, anxiety, and dementia. Also, to a greater risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and diabetes.

Other signs of insomnia include

  • daytime sleepiness and fatigue that gets in the way of normal activities
  • difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • increased irritability or moodiness
  • more-frequent mistakes or accidents

Bring any such symptoms to the doctor’s attention. Beyond insomnia, they may be related to an underlying health issue, such as

  • sleep apnea (halted breathing during sleep)
  • restless leg syndrome (leg movements during sleep)

Many sleep problems in older adults can be related to a chronic condition, such as diabetes, chronic pain, dementia, or depression. Medications can also be at the root of older adult insomnia.

Ideally, provide the doctor at least a week’s worth of notes about your relative’s daytime and nighttime sleep habits. Also bring information about health and current medications (both prescribed and over the counter). Sometimes an overnight sleep study is needed to determine the cause of the insomnia and pinpoint the most appropriate treatment.

Depending on the cause, the doctor may suggest your relative change sleep-related routines. They may also suggest cognitive behavioral therapy. This will teach your loved one to recognize and interrupt the thoughts that contribute to insomnia. Medications may be prescribed. But these are problematic for older adults. They can increase the risk of falls. They can also pose conflicts with other medications and even become addictive.