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Causes of Insomnia in Aging Adults

by | Dec 22, 2022

Does your aging family member sometimes have a hard time falling asleep at night? Or wake up frequently and can’t get back to sleep? 

As people age, insomnia, or difficulty falling and staying asleep, can become a common occurrence. In fact, almost half of aging adults over 65 have at least one sleep issue. 

Lack of sleep has negative health implications for the elderly as it is associated with an increased risk of falls and fractures, a weakened immune system as well as a decline in cognitive and physical abilities.

In this post, we’ll look at some of the common factors that can cause sleep issues in seniors along with their possible treatment options. If your elderly loved one is struggling to get a good night’s sleep, keep reading! 

Physiological and Hormonal Changes

One of the most common reasons elder adults have difficulty sleeping is because their bodies produce less melatonin as they age. Melatonin is a type of hormone that regulates sleep, playing a key role in managing your sleep-wake cycle.

Aging adults also tend to experience shorter “slow-wave” or “heavy” non-rapid eye movement (NREM), the most restorative sleep stage that determines the maintenance and quality of sleep. This causes them to frequently wake up at night and eventually not get enough rest.

While these factors are common with age, there are ways to help seniors get adequate rest, which include optimizing the bedroom by adjusting the temperatures or lighting as well as lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise and avoiding stimulants like caffeine.

Read also: Optimizing Your Bedroom for a Better Sleep

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis Ekbom, is an intense, uncomfortable feeling in the legs, causing an irresistible urge to move them around.

The symptoms of RLS typically worsen in the evening, when sitting or lying in bed, which can cause insufficient and nonrestorative sleep throughout the night. People can develop RLS at any age, but the symptoms tend to become more severe with age, affecting 10-35% of people over the age of 65. 

There are many causes of restless leg syndrome in seniors. Some of the most common are:

  • Medications such as antihistamines, antidepressants, and antinausea drugs
  • Chronic, long-term medical conditions like iron deficiency, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, or kidney failure
  • Nutritional deficiencies, such as the lack of vitamin B12

As a progressive disorder, restless leg syndrome usually requires medical treatment because it often can indicate an underlying health condition. Your aging family member should talk to their doctor if they think restless leg syndrome might be affecting them.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that causes those affected to experience pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while they sleep.

Seniors are more prone to obstructive sleep apnea mainly due to anatomical changes in their upper airways. A 2014 study shows that the upper airway collapsibility or anatomy worsens with age, causing sleep apnea symptoms to occur.

We recommend seniors get medical assistance if they experience signs of sleep apnea as it can greatly reduce their quality of life and put them at increased risk for other health issues, such as stroke, depression, or Alzheimer’s Disease, when left untreated.

Read also: Sleep Apnea May Increase the Risk of Developing Alzheimer’s Disease

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder

REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) is a sleep disorder causing people to physically act out vivid dreams while asleep. This disorder predominantly occurs in older adults, especially men.

RBD happens when normal sleep paralysis doesn’t take place, leading to erratic and potentially dangerous sleep behaviors like kicking, jerking, shouting, sleepwalking, sleep talking, or other violent behaviors that can cause injuries or sleep disruption for both the affected individual and the bed partner. 

This sleep disorder in older adults typically occurs alongside other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, Lewy dementia, and multisystem atrophy or Shy-Drager syndrome.

As such, seniors are more likely than other adults to be affected by this disorder, so they need to talk to their doctor if they experience any associated symptoms. Some possible treatment options for this condition may include medications and physical safeguards for both the individual and the sleep partner. 

Nighttime urination

Nighttime urination, also known as nocturia, is a condition in which one wakes up multiple times per night to urinate, which disrupts the body’s circadian sleep rhythm. This condition commonly affects people over 60, but the prevalence increases to 80-90% when people hit 80 years. 

Nighttime urination is mainly caused by age-related changes in the urinary system and excessive fluid intake, but it can also indicate other health problems, such as bladder tumors or stones, chronic urinary tract infections, bacterial infections, and enlarged prostate. 

Nocturia can result in sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and overall discomfort, so it’s best to talk with a doctor to identify the cause and find a treatment plan to eliminate the trigger conditions. 

If your aging loved one is having trouble sleeping at night, it’s important to consult with a professional to find the exact cause. With so much at stake, it’s best to take sleep issues in seniors seriously and find ways to help them sleep better. 

Take the first step in helping them by taking our free 1-minute sleep assessment to see if they might need treatment for sleep apnea or other sleep disorders in Lafayette, LA!

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Let your elderly loved one get the best night’s sleep possible!

Take our 1-min sleep assessment!