National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health  |  1 Comment  | 

Restless Leg Syndrome and Other Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders can make it hard for elderly people to sleep. Some examples include: restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder. Here is an overview of each type of sleep disorder.

Both restless leg syndrome, or RLS, and periodic limb movement disorder, or PLMD, cause conditions cause people to move their limbs when they sleep, leading to poor sleep and daytime drowsiness. Often, both conditions occur in the same person.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome is a common condition in older adults and affects more than 15 percent of people 80 years and older. People with RLS experience uncomfortable feelings in their legs such as tingling, crawling, or pins and needles. This often makes it hard for them to fall asleep or stay asleep, and causes them to be sleepy during the day.

Although scientists do not fully understand what causes restless legs syndrome, it has been linked to a variety of conditions. Some of these conditions include iron deficiency, kidney failure, dialysis, and nerve abnormalities.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder

Periodic limb movement disorder, or PLMD, is a condition that causes people to jerk and kick their legs every 20 to 40 seconds during sleep. As with RLS, PLMD often disrupts sleep -- not only for the patient but the bed partner as well. One study found that roughly 40 percent of older adults have at least a mild form of PLMD.

Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behavior Disorder

Another condition that may make it harder to get a good night's sleep is rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder, also known as REM sleep behavior disorder. It is somewhat more common in men over the age of 50.

REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, is the most active stage of sleep where dreaming often occurs. During normal REM sleep, the eyes move back and forth beneath the eyelids, and muscles cannot move. In more severe forms of REM sleep behavior disorder, the muscles become quite mobile and sufferers often act out their dreams.

Treatments for Elderly Sleep Disorders

Very often, people who suffer from movement disorders during sleep such as restless legs syndrome or periodic limb movement disorder are successfully treated with the same medications used for Parkinson's disease. People with restless legs syndrome often have low levels of iron in their blood. In such cases doctors often prescribe supplements.

Medications can also treat people with REM behavior disorder. If there are reports of dangerous activities such as hitting or running during these episodes, it may be necessary to make changes to the person's sleeping area to protect sufferers and their bed partners from injury.


The National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health (NIH) leads a broad scientific effort to understand the nature of aging and to extend the healthy, active years of life.

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