Insomnia is the most common sleep complaint at any age. It affects almost half of adults 60 and older.

If your loved one has insomnia, he/she may experience any one or any combination of the following symptoms.

  • Taking a long time -- more than 30 to 45 minutes -- to fall asleep
    Waking up many times each night
  • Waking up early and being unable to get back to sleep
  • Waking up feeling tired, and unable to function well during the day

What Causes Insomnia Among Seniors?

Short-term insomnia, lasting less than one month, may result from a medical or psychiatric condition. Or it may occur after a change in personal circumstances like losing a loved one, relocating, or being hospitalized. If insomnia lasts longer than a month, it is considered chronic, even if the original cause has been resolved.

Many factors can cause insomnia. However, the most common reason older adults wake up at night is to go to the bathroom. Prostate enlargement in men and continence problems in women are often the cause. Unfortunately, waking up to go to the bathroom at night also places older adults at greater risk for falling.

Disorders that cause pain or discomfort during the night such as heartburn, arthritis, menopause, and cancer also can cause you to lose sleep. Medical conditions such as heart failure and lung disease may make it more difficult to sleep through the night, too.

Neurologic conditions such as Parkinson's disease and dementia are often a source of sleep problems, as are psychiatric conditions, such as depression. Although depression and insomnia are often related, it is currently unclear whether one causes the other.

Many older people also have habits that make it more difficult to get a good night's sleep. They may nap more frequently during the day or may not exercise as much. Spending less time outdoors can reduce their exposure to sunlight and upset their circadian biologic clock and their sleep cycle. Drinking more alcohol or caffeine can keep them from falling asleep or staying asleep.

Also, as people age, their sleeping and waking patterns tend to change. Older adults usually become sleepier earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning. If they don't adjust their bedtimes to these changes, they may have difficulty falling and staying asleep.

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Lastly, many older adults take a variety of different medications that may negatively affect their sleep. Many medications have side effects that can cause sleepiness or affect daytime functioning.

Dealing with Insomnia

The first defense against dealing with insomnia is treating the primary problem. Medical solutions can be sought for issues like incontinence, pain, and medication side effects. Some specialists believe sleep medications also can be useful early in treatment, and if necessary, your loved one can continue to use them from time to time. Once the primary problem has been addressed, dealing with some behavior change might still be necessary to retrain the body to sleep better.

There are a number of therapies available to help your loved one fall asleep and stay asleep. Try limiting excessive noise and/or light in the sleep environment. Or, limit the time spent in bed while not sleeping, and use bright lights to help with circadian rhythm problems. Circadian rhythm is our 24-hour internal body clock that is affected by sunlight.

Relaxation techniques also may be helpful in reducing physical and emotional tensions that can interfere with sleep. There are also cognitive therapies aimed at changing attitudes and concerns people may have about insomnia and not being able to sleep well. In essence, accepting the amount of sleep a person receives as enough, can in some cases help a person reframe negative thinking about sleep and help them sleep better.

Source: National Institute on Aging (NIA)