Are sleeping problems common in older adults?

More than half of men and women over the age of 65 complain of at least one sleep problem. Many older people experience insomnia and other sleep difficulties on a regular basis. As we get older, our sleep patterns change. However, good restorative sleep is essential to our physical health and emotional well-being. General changes in sleep patterns caused by aging include:

  • More time spent in light sleep
  • More disrupted night-time sleep
  • A higher number of health conditions that have a negative effect on sleep quality and quantity
  • More daytime naps that can lead to an irregular sleep-wake schedule

In general, older people sleep less, have more fragmented sleep, and spend less time in stage 3 (deep sleep), and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, than younger people.

What are the common causes of sleep problems in older people?

Several factors might contribute to our inability to sleep well as we get older. Some of the common causes include:

  • Poor sleep habits: Irregular sleep-wake patterns can affect an individual’s circadian rhythm and make it hard to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Other sleep issues — such as drinking alcohol before bedtime, increased wakeful time in bed, or daytime napping — will also affect a person’s ability to sleep.
  • Medical illness: Certain chronic (long-term) medical conditions are common in older people. Some of these conditions —including heart failure, arthritis, heartburn, menopause, and Alzheimer’s disease — affect sleep. These conditions can make it hard to fall sleep or might cause the person to wake up frequently, ultimately affecting the quantity and the quality of sleep.
  • Medicines: Some medicines make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, and might even cause the person to wake up at night.
  • Psychologics distress or psychiatric disorders: Old age is marked by many life events, some positive and some negative. Some older people have psychological difficulties or psychiatric disorders that will affect the quality and quantity of sleep. Depression is twice as common in old age compared to young adults, and this can significantly affect the quality and the quantity of sleep. Also, life changes such as the death of a loved one, moving from a family home, or physical limitations due to illness, can cause a great deal of stress and sleep difficulties.
  • Sleep disorders: Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome (RLS), periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), and REM behavior disorder, are associated with aging. All of these conditions can affect sleep. The risk of sleep apnea increases in old age, especially in women, and affects not just sleep but also the heart and brain.
  • Retirement: Retirement often leads to a lot of downtime with no specific plans. This, in turn, often leads to an irregular sleep-wake schedule and chronic sleep problems.

Are you getting enough sleep?

To determine if you have a problem with sleep, ask yourself about the quality of your time awake. If you are getting less sleep than when you were younger, but still feel rested and energetic during the day, it might just be that you now need less sleep. Every person’s sleep needs are different.

However, if you are noticing that your lack of sleep is affecting your daytime activities, you should investigate the cause of your sleeplessness and take steps to get better rest. Consult a doctor if you have concerns about your sleeping patterns.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/03/2016.


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