Symptoms and Causes of Insomnia in Seniors and How to Treat Them

We often hear statements mentioning that “1/3 of our life is spent sleeping”, but we don’t usually give a serious thought about it. While sleeping is a big part of our lives, insomnia is the most common sleep disorder. Having insomnia means having insufficient or nonrestorative sleep despite adequate opportunity to sleep. And approximately one out of two seniors suffer from insomnia.

Why do Seniors Have Insomnia? As we get older, most of us will experience changes in our body that affect how we sleep. Along with these physical changes, similarly changes to our sleep patterns occurs as consequences in the normal aging process.

In addition to that, some seniors experience psychiatric disorders and physiological problems that can also affect the quantity and quality of sleep. Besides, all these changes become more and more pronounced and they will be also influenced by chronic illness or the side effects of prescription medication. As a result, as we get older our sleep patterns changes including disturbed sleep and waking up tired every morning are relatively common.

Insomnia in Seniors

According to a study from 2018 of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, about 25% of Americans experience insomnia each year. And when it comes to seniors with 60 years old and older, according to the National Institute of Health, this percentage increases to 50%.

Fortunately, many seniors nowadays are making sleep a priority and realizing they can accomplish it by keeping a bedtime routine, exercising regularly or eating healthier. All these recommendations will be mentioned in this article. Additionally, I will point the main signs and symptoms to identify insomnia; insomnia main causes; why it’s important to rest well; possible treatments for insomnia; and Insomnia risks for seniors.

10 Signs and Symptoms of Insomnia in Seniors:

5 Signs and symptoms to be identified during the night:

  • Taking more than 30-45 minutes to fall asleep;
  • Having trouble staying asleep;
  • Waking up early, unable to fall back asleep;
  • Night falls;
  • Depression.  

5 Signs and symptoms to be identified during the day:

  • Feeling drowsy, tired or exhausted;
  • Having accidents, due to sleep deprivation;
  • Irritability;
  • Impaired memory or/and difficulty concentrating;
  • Depression.

7 Most Common Causes of Insomnia in Seniors:

  • Pain or medical conditions: Health conditions (such as a frequent need to urinate, pain, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis or other conditions that cause physical pain).
  • Medications intake: The combination of drugs that seniors often take, as well as their side effects, can take a toll on your sleep routine.
  • Depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders: insomnia is one of the symptoms.
  • Poor sleep habits and sleep environment: Irregular sleep routine and an inadequate sleep environment (such as a bedroom that doesn’t suit your needs). Environment being noisy and not dark enough, or an uncomfortable mattress.
  • Unhealthy habits: Having unhealthy habits (such as being overweight, smoking, drinking too much alcohol and an unbalanced diet). If you have unhealthy habits, your sleep will surely be compromised by it.
  • Lack of exercise: Not exercising enough. If you don’t do at least 30min of physical activity on a daily basis, either you have problems to fall asleep, either you feel sleepy all the time.
  • (For women only) Menopause and post menopause: Many women find that hot flashes and night sweats, both symptoms of menopause and post menopause, can interrupt their sleep.

Why is so Important to Have a Good Night Sleep?

Sleep well is extremely important to seniors because it allows your body to repair itself. It refreshes your immune system, which in turn helps to prevent disease. Besides, it also helps to improve concentration and prevent memory loss.

Studies suggest that many older adults sleep seven hours or less, which might be compromising our health to some degree. If you are sleeping five to six hours per night, there is a higher risk of hypertension or developing coronary disease.

Treatments for Insomnia and Other Sleep Disorders in Seniors

Normal treatments would be weight reduction, quit smoking, limit alcohol, healthy diet, reduction of beverage and food intake at night, avoid coffee after 3p.m., maintain a good sleep routine – like relaxation training, leaving stress out of the bedroom, using the bed just for sleep, regular sleep schedule – and daily aerobic exercise for about 30 minutes a day. But often these basic treatments are not enough.

7 Basic Tips for Better Sleep:

  • Maintain healthy habits: Loose weight, quit smoking, limit alcohol and healthy diet.
  • Keep a sleep routine: Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Maintain a regular schedule. Use the bedroom only on bedtime.
  • Exercise: Do exercises! Daily physical activity helps people sleep better. But note that it’s important to avoid vigorous activity for several hours before bedtime.
  • Sleep environment: Create a sleep environment that is dark, quiet, safe and comfortable.
  • Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.: Note that the effect of caffeine can last much longer than 5 hours.
  • Limit naps: If you need them, make them shorter. Set a timer when you go for a rest during the day.
  • No eat or drink too much right before bedtime: Eat/Drink three hours or more before going to bed.

Insomnia Risks for Seniors:

Insomnia can become quickly chronic in a senior. And when it does, the wellbeing and lifestyle can be affected:

  • Lack of concentration/focus can lead to accidents in the house (such as forgetting the stove on, running water or doors unlocked).
  • Increased clumsiness can lead to falls and other accidents that can cause injuries.
  • Constant tiredness can lead to accidents while driving.
  • Avoidance of symptoms can lead to depression, which in turn heightens the sleep disturbance.

Related Questions

Why sleeping pills aren’t the ideal way of treating insomnia?

Sleeping pills are usually not the best solution. In fact, they should be avoided because they are usually bad for brain function. Besides, sleeping pills have risks and side effects, especially for seniors, in both the short-term and long-term.

What are common side effects of sleeping pills?

  • Burning or tingling in hands, arms, feet, or legs;
  • Appetite changes;
  • Dry mouth or throat;
  • Gas;
  • Constipation and/or Diarrhea;
  • Stomach pain and/or tenderness;
  • Difficulty keeping balance;
  • Dizziness;
  • Drowsiness;
  • Headache;
  • Heartburn;
  • Problems with focus and/or memory.

How to create a great sleep environment?

Another recommendation that may be helpful for seniors to battle insomnia is to increase exposure to bright light during the day and to avoid exposure to this light during the night. For that, you need a good sleep environment.

The environment where you sleep is one very important aspect for a better rest that still needs more attention. A great environment is essential to sleep better.

In fact, we statistically spend or more time in our beds and bedrooms as we do anywhere else. Even though 1/3 of your life is spent in a bedroom sleeping, all too often people overlook the importance of what a bedroom actually means in getting great sleep. Improving sleep environment can have lasting benefits to other aspects of your life.

What you can do to improve your sleep environment?

  • Clean out all the clutter
  • Keep your room dark
  • Maintain your room cool
  • Make your room comfortable
  • The right kind of noise

* Please note that none of the advice we give on this post is intended to be a substitute for professional medical help. So if you feel that your sleep problems are seriously affecting your health, please go check with your doctor.

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