The best gift many older adults could receive for Grandparents Day on September 9 is a good night’s sleep.
It is common for older adults to have problems sleeping well. Aging is associated with a decrease in both the quality and quantity of sleep.
“As we get older, our sleep is more easily disturbed,” said Dr. James P. Krainson, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). “Underlying health issues are often the cause of these disturbances.”
Medical problems that often disturb the sleep of older adults include arthritis, depression, lung disease and stroke. Any condition that causes pain is likely to disrupt sleep. Sleep problems also are common for people with either Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.
Symptoms of insomnia often result from these medical conditions. Insomnia occurs when a person is unable to fall asleep or stay asleep, wakes up too early, or feels unrefreshed after sleeping. It is common in older people and occurs more often in women than in men.
The first step in dealing with the symptoms of insomnia is to treat the underlying cause. Yet many medications cause sleep disturbances as a side effect. More sleepless nights may result if the problem is not addressed.
The sleep of older adults also may be disturbed directly by sleep disorders. These include obstructive sleep apnea, periodic limb movements and restless legs syndrome.
Even when healthy, older adults are likely to see their sleep patterns change. It is common to have an “advanced sleep phase” with aging. This involves a change in the timing of the body’s internal clock. As a result, many older adults tend to fall asleep and wake up at earlier times than when they were younger.
Having an extreme change in this timing is called advanced sleep phase disorder. This sleep disorder can have a negative effect on relationships and lifestyle, causing you to “miss out” on social opportunities.
Any of these sleep problems can cause older people to feel very tired during the day. They often cope with this sleepiness by taking regular naps. Older people tend to nap more often and for longer periods of time than younger people. Sleeping too much during the day will make it harder to sleep well at night.
Despite these challenges, it is possible for older people to sleep well on a regular basis. No matter what is causing their sleep problems, better sleep is more likely if they have good “sleep hygiene.” Following these tips can help anyone develop healthy habits that promote sleep.
For example naps should be brief, lasting less than an hour before 3 p.m. Caffeine should be avoided late in the day. You also should never drink alcohol to try to help you fall asleep.
For a severe or ongoing sleep problem, medical help is available. There are more than 1,250 AASM-accredited sleep disorders centers across the country. A sleep specialist at an accredited center can determine the nature of your sleep problem. Then he or she can develop a treatment plan that is just right for you.
Sleep Tips for Older Adults
Sleep and Growing Older
Reviewed by Rose Franco, MD
Updated August 31, 2007