Getting a Good Night’s Sleep: Helping Diagnose Sleep Problems in Seniors

Smiling Senior


Sleep deprivation at any age is detrimental to one’s overall mood and physical well-being. Even young children can be irritable and have trouble concentrating when they don’t get enough sleep, but as we get older, the consequences of sleep deprivation become even more pronounced. And considering that nearly half of people between the ages of 65 and 84 report symptoms of insomnia on a regular basis, sleep issues are clearly a problem for aging adults. 

Although some of the changes in sleep as we age are simply a result of natural shifts in Circadian rhythms, certain chronic diseases and behavioral changes also contribute to the problem. And making the connection between aging and sleep issues even trickier is the fact that many of the symptoms of sleep deprivation can mimic those of common age-related health conditions, including cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. For example, sleep deprivation causes memory problems, difficulties concentrating, confusion, paranoia, irritability, and physical complaints, all of which are associated with those conditions. At the same time, many chronic conditions common among older adults, including diabetes, contribute to sleep difficulties and disorders.

Regardless of whether a lack of sleep is causing mood or cognitive disorders and health issues or vice versa, the upshot remains the same: It’s vitally important that healthcare providers pay close attention to their patients’ sleep, and encourage healthier sleep for seniors as part of an overall health and wellness plan.

Addressing Sleep Deprivation Among Seniors

The first step in addressing the sleep deprivation among aging patients is to discuss sleep during appointments and ask questions about sleep quality, and whether the patient has any concerns about their sleep. Educating patients on the basics of sleep hygiene can help them build better habits to support sleep. For example, remind seniors to avoid exercise and caffeine within 4-6 hours of bed, and to develop routines that support sleep, such as bathing or reading before bed to unwind. Encourage patients to evaluate their sleep areas to identify potential impediments to sleep, such as too much light or the wrong temperature. Keeping a sleep diary can be beneficial when trying to identify patterns in sleep and factors that disrupt their rest so they know exactly what to change. 

When patients complain of sleep problems, it’s important to listen to their concerns and perform a complete physical exam to rule out any underlying medical issues that could be disrupting sleep. Some of the common issues that can disrupt sleep include:

GERD: The pain of acid reflux can keep you awake, wake you up while you’re sleeping, or cause extra trips to the bathroom. Treating that condition with medication, diet changes, change in sleeping position (i.e., elevating the head) can help your patients get more rest. 

Restless Leg Syndrome: When an uncomfortable sensation causes an uncontrollable need to move your legs when you lie down, it can prevent sleep. While avoiding caffeine before bed, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and good sleep hygiene can help reduce RLS, medication is often prescribed as well to reduce symptoms and support sleep.

Menopause: The hot flashes brought on by the hormonal changes that come with menopause can disrupt sleep. For some women, hormone replacement therapy is an effective option.

Arthritis: Swelling and pain in joints can make it hard to fall asleep, or wake you up when you change positions in sleep. Treating the pain of arthritis with medication and lifestyle changes can support better sleep.

Medications: Some medications have side effects that can disrupt sleep. For example, diuretics prescribed for high blood pressure can cause increased nighttime waking to urinate and calf pain. Reviewing medication and making changes as necessary can restore sleep.

These are just some of the medical issues that can disrupt sleep, so a thorough exam and discussion is necessary to uncover any underlying problems. In cases where no immediate medical issue is apparent, a sleep study may be in order to get to the bottom of sleep issues and develop an effective treatment plan. For many people, though, simply acknowledging the natural changes in sleep quality that come with age and changing habits will lead to significant improvement. Ultimately, sleep is far too important to simply accept poor rest as a part of life, so it’s vital to discuss sleep with your patients and address problems before they affect overall health and well-being. 

Learn more about Sleep and Aging at: