Simple Steps Can Combat Sleep Problems in Elderly
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
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
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.
Apnea can be treated by behavior modifications to lessen sleeping on the
back, oral appliances that enhance the airway, weight loss, and elimination of
medications that depress breathing. Sometimes respiratory stimulants, such as
Diamox (acetazolamide); continuous positive airway pressure, which is
administered through a mask the person wears at night; and surgery are also
effective. Treatments for periodic limb movement disorders are less than ideal,
according to the report. Although medications called benzodiazepines, including
Klonopin (clonazepam) and Restoril (temazepam), can be used, they also cause
daytime sedation and have little effect on the leg movements themselves,