Sleeplessness in Seniors Can Exacerbate Other Issues

As we age, it may become harder to fall asleep—and to stay there.

That can lead to a desire for sleeping during the daytime. For seniors in particular, however, other factors may be playing a part: depression, chronic pain, nutritional deficiencies, medications and boredom are all on the list. Recent research has shown that in many cases, sleep disturbances are caused by physical and psychiatric illnesses and the medicines used to treat them. Harvard Medical School reports that sleep problems are particularly common in patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The challenge is that a lack of adequate sleep—especially deep sleep—can worsen physical and psychiatric symptoms. According to the National Sleep Foundation, in addition to daytime sleepiness, insomnia can lead to an inability to concentrate, increased risk for illness and accidents, and a significantly reduced quality of life. None of those is likely to help the person already struggling with depression and/or anxiety.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine, meanwhile, reports that older people typically awaken three or four times each night, and are more aware of being awake than their younger counterparts. About seven hours of nightly sleep is recommended.

So what is a sleepless senior to do? In this population, sleep medications should be used only as recommended, and only for short periods of time, if at all. Patients should also consult with their providers before taking any medicines, as seniors respond differently to medicines than the younger population. Drug interactions also may be a concern.

The good news is that by getting enough sleep, seniors may be able to reduce depression, anxiety and the symptoms of other mental disorders. Sleep may be helped by reducing stimulants such as caffeine and violent TV shows or movies. Moderate exercise can help, in addition to keeping a regular routine of sleeping and waking. Those daytime naps, however, should be avoided as much as possible, to return to more restful nights—and healthier days.


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