Sleep disorders are prevalent among the elderly, affecting almost 50% of those age 60 and older. However, disturbed sleep is not a normal part of the aging process. Characterized by an inability to fall or stay asleep, insomnia is the most common sleep disorder among older adults and typically takes two forms: transient, lasting a few days or weeks; and long-term, lasting more than a month. If your loved one seems to be getting inadequate or poor-quality sleep, here are some possible causes and what you can do to address them:
Depression, stress, and anxiety can lead to lost sleep. While seniors sometimes take medication to mitigate insomnia, these drugs come with unwanted side effects. Non-pharmaceutical solutions, while often underutilized, can be a healthier option. Relaxation techniques and behavioral therapy have been shown to help older people cope with stress. If a sleep aid is prescribed, healthcare providers recommend that it only be taken short-term to avoid misuse or dependence on the drug.
Chronic illnesses often make it harder to sleep soundly. Eighty-five percent of chronic pain sufferers have difficulty staying asleep. People with heart disease and breathing problems are likely to experience sleep disruptions, too. Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other neurodegenerative conditions may also interfere with healthy sleep-wake cycles. In these cases, treatment to manage the underlying condition can reduce insomnia.
Some medications (or medication interactions) can cause or contribute to insomnia. Talk to your loved one's doctor about possible solutions. In some instances, adjusting the dose, or the time at which it is taken, may lead to fewer sleep disturbances.
Significant Life Events or Changes in Routine
Seniors may struggle with insomnia after a major life event, such as relocating or losing a loved one. According to the American Journal of Medicine, being a widow is associated with a higher risk of having insomnia. Some older people find it especially difficult to get back to their normal bedtime schedule after a hospital stay. Maintaining a consistent nighttime routine and receiving social support after a significant life event can help seniors sleep better.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that, "As we get older, the amount of nightly sleep that we need remains the same as that of what we needed when we were younger." As they age, however, people tend to fall asleep earlier and wake up earlier. This tendency, coupled with certain habits, can make getting the recommended 7-9 hours a night harder to come by.
- Bedtime habits. Help your loved one establish a relaxing evening routine and a consistent bedtime schedule. Using electronics right before going to sleep should be avoided. Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and well-ventilated.
- Naps. Elders who nap during the day may have difficulty getting a full night's rest. Naps should be avoided or kept short (15-45 minutes or less) and taken before 3 p.m.
- Diet. Avoid heavy meals, refined carbohydrates, sugar, and spicy foods before bedtime. Choose a light, healthy snack instead. Consuming caffeine or alcohol late in the day can also keep seniors up at night.
- Sunlight. Getting adequate natural light helps to regulate the body's internal clock. Spending time outside, keeping the shades open during daylight hours, and using a light box can reduce nighttime restlessness.
- Exercise. A Northwestern University study found that regular aerobic exercise can dramatically improve sleep quality and quantity.
If you're not sure what's causing insomnia in your older loved one, talk to their doctor. Keeping a sleep journal — a record of sleep patterns and lifestyle habits — can help you discover the root of the problem. Fortunately, a variety of treatments are available to help seniors consistently enjoy a good night's sleep.