Common Sleep Disorders in Older Adults

Common Sleep Disorders in Older Adults

We’ve all had sleepless nights. You get out of bed the next day feeling exhausted, frazzled, and stressed, but you muddle through. If the sleeplessness continues for days, your body’s response gets more intense. Signs of sleep deprivation send you the message that sleep is integral to your ability to function at your best. Your physical, mental, and emotional well-being is connected to your sleep habits, and when you suffer from sleep disorders, it can adversely affect your health. 

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep is one of our body’s most basic needs. Without adequate amounts of it, we are vulnerable to lowered immune systems, weight gain, and a greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. On the other hand, being on a regular schedule of sleeping soundly each night can energize you, maximize your physical and mental performance during the day, improve productivity, and keep depression at bay.

How do you know if you are suffering from a sleep disorder? Lots of people think they can survive on just 4-5 hours of sleep per night, even though most medical studies recommend 7-8 hours for adults, but what are some of the symptoms of sleep deprivation?

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of ability to focus and concentrate
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Irritability and mood swings

Are seniors more susceptible to sleep disorders?

Many older adults start to notice they are waking up earlier in the morning and getting tired earlier in the evening. You may find yourself waking up throughout the night, disrupting your rest. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons you have a hard time falling - and staying - asleep, and what sleep aids and treatments for sleep disorders are available to help you.

Many seniors assume that changes in adult sleep patterns are normal due to aging, and there is some validity to this. Seniors are vulnerable to sleep disorders for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to:

1. Changes in your body’s chemicals  

There has been speculation that older adults may experience a decrease in the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. Although this hasn’t been scientifically proven, the side effects of some hormonal changes can cause disruption to your rest as you get older.

2. Medication side effects

If you have experienced changes in your sleep patterns, review any changes in medications you have had to take recently. There are certain medications that can cause sleep disorders in older adults, including, but not limited to:

  • Alpha-blockers, often prescribed to treat high blood pressure
  • Beta-blockers, often prescribed to treat angina, migraines, arrhythmia, high   blood pressure, or certain types of glaucoma
  • Statins, often prescribed to treat high cholesterol
  • Arthritis supplements that contain glucosamine and chondroitin
  • Antihistamines, such as medications to treat allergic reactions

Medications prescribed by your physician should be making you feel better, not worse. If you are having sleep issues while taking medications, call your doctor to discuss your options. Your doctor may be able to adjust the dosage or prescribe an alternative therapy or treatment.

3. Lifestyle Habits

  •  Retirement: If you have recently retired, changes in your lifestyle may be contributing to shifts in your sleeping patterns. You may be less active physically and mentally during the day, and you could be experiencing a decrease or loss in regular social interaction that can lower your mental stimulation during the day.
  •  Exercise & activity: If you haven’t gotten into a habit of filling your free time with activities and exercise, you could be fueling your sleep problems. Working out routinely can help you get the sleep you need at night, but if you do workout regularly, you may want to avoid exercising within three hours of your bedtime.
  •  Smoking: Nicotine acts as a stimulant and has been tied to insomnia. Talk to your doctor about smoking cessation therapies that can help you quit. Some smoking cessation therapies are even covered by Medicare.

4. Poor Eating Habits

  •  Caffeine: We all know that caffeine can keep us awake. Many of us enjoy that particular side effect during early mornings or boring meetings, but at night, it can cause serious sleep problems. The National Sleep Association has reported that caffeine can delay sleep for up to 10-12 hours for some individuals. If you are having sleep issues, keep your caffeine intake limited to mornings.
  •  Chocolate: Keep in mind that caffeine isn’t limited to just coffee, tea, and soft drinks. Chocolate also has caffeine, so try to avoid eating it in the evenings.
  •  Spicy and acidic foods: Eating spicy and acidic foods can cause heartburn, which could keep you awake for hours in discomfort. Eating a heavy meal late at night can also have the same effect.
  •   Alcohol: An alcoholic drink before bed may act as a sedative, but it can also interrupt your circadium rhythm (your internal clock), waking you up in the middle of the night, and block REM sleep, the most restorative type of sleep. Alcohol can also cause snoring and breathing problems while you sleep.

5. Underlying health conditions

Many sleep problems are actually secondary to an underlying medical condition or illness. If you are experiencing continued sleep issues, discuss your concerns with your physician to make sure there is not an underlying illness that needs to be addressed and treated.

Some of the medical conditions that can lead to poor sleeping habits include:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Lung disease, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Kidney disease
  • Enlarged prostate, overactive bladder or other urinary diseases
  • Diabetes
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Depression and anxiety disorders

Sleep Disorders & Solutions

Common sleep disorders in seniors include sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and insomnia, but there are treatments and therapies that can help.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a common, but serious, condition. The risk of getting sleep apnea increases with age, and being overweight can add to the likelihood of suffering from sleep disordered breathing. Frequent pauses in one’s breathing during sleep can be caused by obstructions in the passages or related to changes in the brain. Talk to your doctor about further evaluation in a sleep lab or by using an at-home sleep test.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

With unpleasant, if not painful, sensations of itching or restlessness, Restless Leg Syndrome can be caused by poor health and low iron levels. Older females have a higher risk of RLS, which can lead to depression and anxiety.


Approximately one quarter of older adults suffer from insomnia, struggling regularly to fall asleep or stay asleep. Your quality of life can be affected dramatically, with cognitive decline, depression, and anxiety among the many issues associated with insomnia. Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to your doctor to find a solution that will help.

Treatments for sleep disorders are available. Call your primary care physician if you are feeling any symptoms of sleep deprivation or have experienced sudden changes in your sleep patterns. Behavior modifications may alleviate some sleep disorders, but your doctor can work with you to create a plan with a variety of treatments, therapies and, as a last resort, possible medications, to get you back into the habit of getting a good night’s sleep. Your doctor will also make sure that your sleep issues are not related to an underlying medical condition that may not have been discovered yet. Don’t assume your sleep issues are age-related. Your doctor can work with you to discuss common sleep disorders in seniors and find the right solution for you.