Aging and Insomnia Don't Go Hand-in-Hand
Insomnia isn't a normal part of aging. Learn more about the possible causes of sleep problems and what you can do about it

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Picture of man yawning Aging and Insomnia Don't Go Hand-in-Hand

It's often said that the older you get, the less sleep you need. But in fact, older adults need about as much sleep as younger adults - 7 to 9 hours a night. Yet, seniors often have trouble getting the restful sleep they need. Some changes in sleep patterns are common as people age. Older people may go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier, have more trouble going to sleep, or wake up several times during the night. But insomnia is not a normal part of aging.

Changes in sleep patterns among seniors may be due in part to shifting hormone levels. Melatonin, a hormone that controls sleeping and waking, may decline with age. Older people also tend to be lighter sleepers so they may be more easily awakened by factors such as noise and light.

You may have a sleep problem that is not related to aging if you:

  • Depend on pills to sleep
  • Haven't had a good night's sleep in over a month
  • Often get sleepy at times when you should be alert, such as while driving

Common causes of insomnia in seniors
Medical conditions
that increase trips to the bathroom, like diabetes or an enlarged prostate, are the most common causes of insomnia in seniors. Insomnia is also more likely in seniors with:

  • Painful conditions, like arthritis or cancer
  • Heart failure
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

If you think an illness is causing your insomnia, talk to your doctor.

Some medications can affect sleep. These include:

  • Diuretics, also called "water pills," which increase urination
  • Certain asthma inhalers
  • Decongestants
  • Antidepressants

If a medication is causing your sleep problem, your doctor may recommend a different drug or advise you to take your medication at a different time of day.

Sleep disorders may be at the root of insomnia, and they become more common with age. For example, sleep apnea can cause you to stop breathing at times during the night, which can wake you up. Restless legs syndrome causes an unpleasant sensation in the legs and an intense need to move them while lying down.

Sleep disorders can often be treated successfully. Call your doctor if you have any symptoms of a sleep disorder such as:

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking up gasping for breath
  • A burning or crawling sensation in your legs or a strong urge to move your legs while resting
  • Feeling extremely sleepy during the daytime

Other factors that affect sleep
Lifestyle issues can affect sleep. For example, if you're less active than you used to be, your body may not know it still needs just as much sleep. Try these tips to improve sleep:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
  • Get more exercise during the day, but finish at least 2 hours before bedtime. Check with your doctor before increasing your activity level.
  • Don't nap for more than 1 hour during the day.
  • Limit or avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, which can interfere with sleep.

If feelings of sadness or anxiety are keeping you awake, talk to your doctor. You may be experiencing depression or stress, which can be treated.

Remember that sleeplessness doesn't have to be a part of aging. Simple changes and your doctor's suggestions can help you get the rest you need.

By Louis Neipris, MD, Staff Writer
Created on 03/09/2007
Updated on 05/02/2011
Sources:
  • National Institute on Aging. Sleep and aging.
  • American Geriatrics Society. Foundation for Health in Aging. Elder care at home: sleep problems.
  • Misra S, Malow BA. Evaluation of sleep disturbances in older adults. Clinics in Geriatric Medicine.2008;24:15-26.
  • National Sleep Foundation. Aging and sleep.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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