As we get older our bodies change in myriad ways and so too does our sleep. Beyond just age itself, there are numerous factors like health problems and medication regimens that can have an impact on the amount and quality of sleep an individual is able to achieve as they get older. Whatever the cause, sleeplessness is an incredibly common problem among the elderly, with 40-50% of adults over 60 reporting that they experience some form of sleep disturbance—and insomnia tends to be the most common.
There are some normal changes that you can expect to occur with each year that you get older after 50. It’s very common to experience simply having a harder time falling asleep, waking up more often in the night and waking up earlier in the morning. There are also some less prevalent but still treatable sleep problems that are particularly common among the over 50 crowd, including insomnia, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.
We’ve highlighted some of the normal sleep changes that come with age, the primary sleep disorders that are most common among the elderly and a few of the ways that medications can impact sleep.
How Aging Changes Sleep
As we age we produce less growth hormone and less melatonin, making it harder to get a deep sleep. Many older people need to go to bed earlier or spend more time in bed in order to get the proper amount of sleep. Because these difficulties tend to emerge slowly over time, some people believe they simply need less sleep—staying up late and rising early. But even when you’re older, you still need a solid 7-8 hours; it just might become harder to get it.
Maintaining a consistent bedtime routine and a general schedule for your day will help. Staying active, getting some sun in the morning, using the bedroom for sleeping and sex only and avoiding alcohol before bed are all ways to make sleeping a little easier in your golden years.
Common Sleep Problems And Causes In Old Age
- Insomnia - Insomnia is the inability to go to sleep or stay asleep and is both a disorder as well as a symptom of other health problems.
- Snoring and sleep apnea - The most common form is obstructive sleep apnea, which is caused by muscles in your throat relaxing too much at night. There’s also central sleep apnea, which is when your brain is simply not sending the proper signals to your breathing muscles during the night.
- Restless legs syndrome - This syndrome causes an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, making it difficult to relax and be still long enough to go to sleep.
- Depression and other psychological distress - As you age, you will likely experience more loss and, depending on your social life and activity levels, may be spending more time at home being sedentary. Staying busy with meaningful activities that get your brain and body working can help mitigate feelings of depression, which can disrupt your sleep.
Underlying Medical Issues And Medications That Cause Sleep Problems
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Diuretics for high blood pressure or glaucoma (can cause you to need to use the restroom throughout the night)
- Anticholinergics for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Antihypertensive drugs for high blood pressure
- Corticosteroids (prednisone) for rheumatoid arthritis
- H2 blockers (Tagamet) for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or peptic ulcer
- Levodopa for Parkinson’s disease
- Adrenergic drugs for life-threatening conditions like asthma attacks or cardiac arrest
What Should You Do If You’re Having Trouble Sleeping?
- Take a good hard look at how you spend your time—are you getting enough exercise? Being sedentary can cause you to struggle to sleep or feel sleepy all day. Maintaining a social network and having things to get excited about can help you feel good too.
- Do some research! Try to understand natural sleep changes and which of your existing medical conditions might be causing you trouble.
- Talk to your doctor—not only will they be able to help diagnose a problem, bu they may be able to help you adjust your medication regimen to improve your sleep
- Consider a sleep study
- Try creating a bedtime routine and use some of our best tips for sleep wellness