When Older Folks Can't Sleep

Elderly ZZZZs Disease

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 14, 2001 -- For many, getting good sleep is as easy as turning off the light and pulling up the covers. But for many older people, sleeping is a challenge.

Scientists are learning that more than half of the older people in the U.S. have at least one complaint about how well they can sleep.

But as sleep research progresses, insomnia among the elderly is becoming less of a mystery. Some new studies, for instance, suggest that altered sleep patterns are just a natural progression of aging. -->You may have been hearing about the sleep hormone called melatonin as well. Researchers are still trying to tease out just how it works in older people. Scientists have gone back and forth in determining what happens to the levels of this hormone in the body as people age.

Some reports show that the elderly seem to produce less of it than they did when they were younger, and those who complain of sleep problems have even less of the substance, compared with those the same age who get better sleep. But other studies show melatonin levels stayed the same as people aged.

Doctors still need to work out just how helpful melatonin treatment could be for those over age 65. But experts tell WebMD that it is going to take more than one type of treatment to help most folks with sleep problems, mostly because there are so many different reasons why sleep problems happen.

A Symptom with a Cause

Many cases of insomnia are caused by underlying but very treatable causes. Insomnia, rather than being a distinct condition of its own, "is best thought of as a manifestation of many conditions," says Mark Mayoral, MD, Director of the Minneapolis Regional Sleep Disorders Center. "There's no one treatment that can be applied for the complaint of insomnia."

The Minneapolis researcher says "restless legs syndrome," for example, affects about 10% of adults, or up to 12 million people in the United States. People with this syndrome experience abnormal sensations when they go to bed. They describe the feelings as tingling, cramping, burning, creeping, itching, pulling, or aching. Other descriptions include numbness, a crawling sensation or the feeling that water is flowing under the skin, pins and needles, or an "antsy" feeling.

"It's so easy to treat, and regrettably a sizeable portion of practicing physicians are unfamiliar with the condition," Mayoral says. Taking vitamins or eliminating caffeine, for instance, can help.