Simple Steps Can Combat Sleep Problems in Elderly

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 7, 1999 -- For many older folks, a good night's sleep is but a dream. They have trouble falling asleep and awaken after only a few hours. Their daytime fatigue may be so overwhelming that they can't drive or participate in other normal activities.

About half of those who complain to their doctors about poor sleep end up with a prescription drug. Not only are these unnecessary but they also are habit-forming and can cause side effects, according to sleep researcher Michael Vitiello, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

It is far better for people to consider what simple changes could be made to improve their sleep -- and to understand how sleep patterns change with age, Vitiello writes in the November/December 1999 issue of the journal Gerontology.

Common -- and normal -- sleep problems, which plague up to 40% of the elderly, include light sleep, frequent waking, and daytime fatigue. Among older people, there is also a decrease in the deep-sleep stage and an increase in periods of wakefulness during the night. "Compared with younger adults, even carefully screened noncomplaining older adults exhibit the sleep pattern changes described," writes Vitiello.

While many seniors complain of poor sleep, relatively few have true sleep disorders and even smaller numbers need commonly prescribed sleep medications. Sleep disorders in the elderly include apnea (a temporary cessation of breathing which can also affect younger people) and periodic limb movement, which can take the form of periodic leg movements during sleep (PLMS) or restless leg syndrome. In this syndrome, the person is gripped by strong urges to move his or her legs repeatedly before sleep, which prevent him or her from falling asleep.

Before a physician can diagnose a sleep disorder, he or she should perform a thorough medical examination, review medications the person is taking, and speak to the person's spouse or bed partner about their sleeping habits.

Sometimes medication is prescribed, but "although these drugs may be useful in the management of [short-term] insomnia, they fail to provide long-term relief from chronic sleep disturbances. Hypnotics [medications] can worsen existing sleep disturbances by inducing drug-dependency insomnia and, when the drug is discontinued after intermediate to long-term use, rebound insomnia and nightmares," Vitiello says.