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Common Sleep Problems For Elderly

Common Sleep Problems for Elderly (& Tips for Management)

Ironically for many older people, a good night’s sleep can be like an elusive dream. They have trouble falling asleep and even if they do, they wake up after only a few hours. Making matters worse is daytime fatigue that can be overwhelming to the point that they can’t drive or participate in other normal activities.

Experts widely agree that “normal aging” comes with a variety of changes to sleep. In general, older adults tend to get sleepy earlier in the evening, and sleep less deeply than when they were younger. It is also quite common for the elderly to develop health problems that can initiate sleep disturbances. Remember as well that getting enough good quality sleep directly impacts your overall health, including brain health, physical health, and mood.

Interestingly, roughly half of older adults who discuss poor sleep with their doctors walk out of the office with a prescription drug. In addition to being unnecessary, these drugs come with a host of potential side effects. It is a far better approach to consider simple changes that can be made to improve sleep and understand how sleep patterns change with age.

Common sleep problems in the elderly

Common and completely normal sleep problems plague roughly 40 percent of the U.S. elderly population, including light (non-REM) sleep, frequent waking, and daytime fatigue. There is also often a decrease in deep-sleep stages and a corresponding increase in waking during the night.

Many seniors may complain of poor sleep but relatively few have genuine sleep disorders and less need commonly prescribed sleep medications. Sleep disorders in elderly people include apnea (a temporary pause in breathing which can also affect younger people), periodic limb movement or restless leg syndrome. In regard to the latter, a person is gripped by strong urges to move his or her legs repeatedly before sleep, which often prevents falling asleep.

In all cases, before a physician can diagnose a sleep disorder, she will perform a thorough medical exam, review current medications for a patient, and speak to the person’s spouse or partner about their sleeping habits.

As mentioned above, in some cases medication is prescribed and while drugs may help in management of short-term insomnia, they do little to offer long-term relief from chronic sleep disturbances. In fact, some drugs can actually worsen existing sleep disturbances by introducing drug-dependent insomnia and when the drug is stopped, some people experience “rebound insomnia” and a host of nightmares.

Common causes of sleep problems in the elderly

Here is a look at some common sleep problems experienced by older people:

Underlying medical problems

In addition to primary sleep disorders, a greater number are secondary to an existing medical condition including:

  • Heart and lung conditions affecting breathing (think heat failure or chronic pulmonary disease)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease, which causes heartburn symptoms and is often influenced by big meals late at night
  • Painful conditions such as arthritis
  • Urinary problems caused by an enlarged prostate or overactive bladder
  • Mood issues such as depression and anxiety
  • Neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
  • Side effects from medication

Snoring and other sleep-related breathing disorders

Sleep-disordered breathing covers a wide range of problems related to the ways people breathe while sleeping. The most common is sleep apnea, in which a person is plagued with frequent pauses in breathing, often caused by obstructions in breathing passages. Another form is central sleep apnea, where breathing pauses are influenced by changes in the brain.

Older people, especially men and/or the overweight, are more likely to contract sleeping disorders. In fact, more than 50 percent of one study’s 800 older adults showed signs of sleep apnea. Avoiding alcohol and other sedatives is one way to combat the issue.

Restless leg syndrome

While symptoms of RLS are not typically painful and go away with movement; they are nonetheless unpleasant. RLS includes sensations of itching, crawling, or general restlessness. Experts continue to study this problem and overall consensus is related to dopamine and iron levels in the brain.

Treating sleep problems

Experts agree that cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective means in treating sleep disorders, as well as mindfulness meditation and regular exercise. The latter can be especially effective but may take several months to make a difference. Remember that drugs are not the way to go and can be habit-forming.


If you or your family member is considering in-home care as part of a plan to age in place, contact Family Matters In-Home Care today for a free consultation.  Our team is dedicated to supporting your family and helping older adults enjoy life in the comfort of their own home for as long as possible.

Some of the services offered by Family Matter In-Home Care include: Alzheimer’s & Dementia CareBed & Wheelchair Transfer AssistanceCompanionshipHousekeeping & Meal PreparationPersonal CareRecovery Care, and Transportation.

Serving the San Francisco Bay Area, Greater San Diego, and now Oregon, Family Matter In-Home Care has offices in Campbell, CARoseville, CASan Marcos, CASan Mateo, CA, and Portland, OR.

Carol Pardue-Spears

Carol has worked in the healthcare field for more than forty years. As a Certified Nursing Assistant, she worked for El Camino Hospital in the cardiac unit, Los Gatos Community Hospital, The Women’s Cancer Center in Los Gatos and several home health and hospice agencies. Carol founded Family Matters in 2002 to fill a deficit she witnessed in high-quality, in-home services and care.