When Older Folks Can't Sleep

Elderly ZZZZs Disease

From the WebMD Archives


Learned by Experience

Others have conditioned or learned insomnia, says Mayoral. People who have had heart attacks or have suffered a loss, for instance, will naturally have trouble sleeping. If they lie in bed and try to force themselves to sleep, their bodies eventually learn not to sleep.

"If this goes on for five to seven nights, the original cause -- which may be very legitimate -- has disappeared, but the learned response persists," says Mayoral.

Mayoral puts such patients in a program to teach them how to sleep again -- usually without sleeping pills, which are no cure either.

Other Approaches

The FDA usually approves of the use of sleeping pills for up to two weeks at a time. But some people use them for years, and for them, the drugs may be more of a psychological boost than a real sleep aid, says Charles M. Morin, MD, of the School of Psychology at the University Laval in Quebec. In his research, Morin found that the sleep of people who use sleeping pills was just as disrupted as those who don't take them.

Behavioral modification may be the way to go in the long run, since researchers are learning that drug therapy is most effective for short-term management of insomnia. For long-term improvements, researchers often find that changing habits, sleep schedules, and beliefs make a difference for many sleep patients -- many of whom think that they always need eight hours of sleep every night.

Just how much sleep older people need is a matter of dispute. Several researchers, including Morin, say they believe seniors' sleep needs are no different than they were when they were younger. It's just that it's more difficult for them to sleep well.

But Charles Pollack, MD, Director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Ohio State University, has found that older people simply don't need as much sleep. "They're not only sleeping less, but they need less."

But while most seniors need less sleep, says Pollack, they still plan for the same eight hours in bed. What's more, older people are often unaware that it's normal for their sleep patterns to shift as they age. They feel sleepy earlier in the evening than they're used to, and wake up earlier in the morning. This causes many to think they aren't getting a full night's rest, says Pollack.