Sleep Problems Don't Discriminate by Age

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
From the WebMD Archives

March 31, 2003 -- More than two-thirds of older adults suffer from sleep problems, such as insomnia, and losing sleep can only make matters worse for their health, according to researchers. A new poll shows that poor health, not old age, is a major factor behind many of the sleep disorders among people over 55. In fact, not getting enough sleep may merely compound the aches and pains of getting older.

Researchers say the 2003 Sleep in America poll, released today by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), shows for the first time that health problems such as diabetes and arthritis are more likely to be responsible for poor sleep among older people in the U.S. than old age.

The poll found that insomnia is the most commonly reported sleep disorder, and nearly half of the 1,506 surveyed said they frequently suffer from at least one symptom of insomnia. But only one in eight says sleep disorders have ever been addressed by a doctor.

"In spite of the emerging science linking sleep and health, only a small fraction of the many reported sleep complaints of older adults are actually diagnosed and treated," says NSF President James K. Walsh, PhD, in a news release.

Walsh says the poll shows that doctors need to talk to their patients about sleep, listen to the problems they describe, and treat those problems as part of any medical condition.

Researchers also found a strong link between the number of diagnosed medical conditions reported by the participants and the quality of their sleep. Only about half of those with no reported medical conditions said they suffered from sleep disorders, compared with 80% of those with four or more medical conditions.

Sleep disorders were reported by:

  • 82% of those with depression
  • 81% who have suffered a stroke
  • 76% being treated for heart disease
  • 75% diagnosed with lung disease
  • 72% with diabetes or arthritis
  • 71% of those diagnosed with high blood pressure (hypertension)

Loss of sleep was also associated with other physical problems common among older adults, including frequent pain, excess weight, and lack of mobility.

Compared with younger people, the poll found older adults get slightly more sleep on weeknights (7.0 vs. 6.7 hours/night). But younger adults get more sleep on weekends than their older counterparts, averaging about a half hour more sleep on Saturday and Sunday.

The survey sampled 1,506 people between the ages 55 and 84. The margin of error is +/- 2.5%.

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SOURCES: Sleep in America, 2003 National Sleep Foundation Poll. News release, National Sleep Foundation.

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