Better Sleep for Seniors – A comprehensive Guide
It might seem strange to devote a guide to sleep for seniors. After all, seniors have had decades of practice sleeping! Why, then, is it worth discussing sleep in seniors?
Put simply, there are a lot of misconceptions and myths about sleep and seniors – how much sleep they need, the effects of naps, sleep problems that come with old age, and so on. The ideal sleep needs and habits of seniors are different than younger adults. Too often, the value of sleep is underestimated by seniors, despite the fact that it plays a huge role in overall health and well-being. We think that merits further exploration of the topic.
To that end, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to sleep for seniors. We’ll answer common questions about sleep quantity and quality, address the changing sleep needs of seniors, talk about the benefits of good sleep for mind and body, look at the effects of aging and how they contribute to common sleep problems, and much more. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve compiled a dozen expert tips to help seniors fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and get better quality of sleep. Many of these tips are simple lifestyle changes or adjustments that can make a world of difference for many seniors.
So, read on to learn everything you need to know about sleep in seniors. A sound and restful night’s sleep may be closer than you think!
How Sleep and Sleep Needs Change as We Age
The total sleep duration a person needs decreases throughout their life, though remains largely study from adulthood onward, as illustrated in the recommended sleep durations from the National Sleep Foundation.
As we age, we need less and less sleep. Most of this change takes place between birth and adolescence, however. From post-pubescence onward, an 8-hour rule-of-thumb is a fairly universal guidance, though with some individual variation (plus or minus about an hour to an hour and a half). All of this assumes, of course, a healthy individual – medications, medical conditions, mental health problems, and other conditions can result in needing more sleep, or feeling like more sleep is required.
Despite the fact that seniors’ sleep needs don’t generally decrease from those of their younger adult counterparts, there are some genuine changes to sleep behaviors and overall health that can impact the number of hours senior sleep, as well as the quality of their sleep. As we age, one of the changes that the brain undergoes is neuron loss. Unlike most other parts of the body that are constantly being regenerated, brain neurons don’t regenerate. The neurons responsible for sleep signaling, in particular, have been shown to die off as we age, without regeneration, meaning many seniors find it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Senior citizens are also more likely to get less deep sleep, which is the truly regenerative part of the sleep cycle. They are more likely to wake up during the night and have difficulty getting back to sleep when they do. This is both due to neuron depletion, as well as a variety of health and lifestyle factors that are common in seniors and which we’ll discuss in greater detail later in this guide.
The decrease in physical activity and sedentary behavior that is typical of seniors can play a role, too. Regular exercise can help seniors to achieve better sleep, especially if they are already struggling with insomnia or health problems that can impact sleep. Additionally, emotional issues more common in seniors than in other populations can play a role in sleep quality. Stress, anxiety, and depression are not uncommon, especially with life changes typical of retirement. Social isolation, difficulty making new friends, and the loss of friends, loved ones, or a spouse will naturally have a negative impact on mental health, and usually come with a corresponding disruption to sleep.
Why Sleep Matters Even More for Seniors
All of the benefits and functions of sleep highlighted above apply to seniors as well as younger, working-age adults. However, there are many good reasons why sleep matters even more for seniors. These primarily stem from the fact that seniors are generally less able to “bounce back” from sleep disruption than younger people, and more likely to feel the negative effects of too little sleep or poor quality sleep. The health benefits of sleep are also more important for seniors, given their higher incidence of diseases and illnesses. This makes sleep a more pressing matter, with a much greater direct correlation on health and quality of life.
Additionally, brain function already decreases slightly as we age. Learning new information, recalling old information, and being able to make decisions, draw on old talents, learn new skills, and so on can all become more difficult for seniors to begin with. Adding in the negative effects of too little sleep can exacerbate those complaints. The same holds true for emotions and mood. A good night’s sleep isn’t going to cure depression or solve an anxiety issue, but the lack of a good night’s sleep can certainly make them worse.
Sleep has been shown to improve performance in life skills and decrease the risk of accidents. Accidents or injury can be the triggers for significant health problems. Most notable are falls, which can result in broken hips, lengthy hospitalizations, and are one of the most devastating health outcomes for seniors. Sleepiness, poor coordination or attentiveness, and the other effects that come with poor sleep can increase the risk of falls, secondary health effects, hospitalization, and long-term illness.
Quantity vs. Quality of Sleep
When it comes to sleep, it’s not always just about the number of hours. Both quantity and quality of sleep are essential. Quality refers to how well you sleep, how well you stay asleep, the amount of times you wake up or are otherwise disturbed in your sleep, and how much time you spend in restorative REM sleep as opposed to light sleep. Seniors often spend more time trying to fall asleep, wake up more frequently, and spend more time trying to get back to sleep. The net result is that 8 hours in bed can very well mean as little as 5 hours of actual sleep, which is not enough.
These kinds of sleep disruptions diminish the restorative nature of sleep, and reduce or limit the benefits that sleep provides. Seniors should get 8 hours of good quality sleep, with 15 minutes or less to fall asleep, and waking at most once during the night. Seniors are more likely to have disrupted sleep and poor quality sleep, even if they are getting enough hours in bed. There are common problems that lead to this statistic, in addition to the aforementioned medications and other unrelated health conditions.
Common Sleep Problems in Seniors
Of course, falling asleep quickly and staying asleep is often easier said than done, especially for senior citizens. Sleep disorders are more common in those of advanced age than in younger people. In addition, various health conditions and illnesses that are more common in older age can contribute to difficulty sleeping. Common sleep problems that are more prevalent in the elderly include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and REM sleep behavior disorder.
Recent studies have found that seniors experience insomnia at much higher rates than the general population. Compared to younger adults, where the incidence of reported insomnia is 12 to 20%, seniors (defined in this study as those over 65) report insomnia at 30 to 48%, more than double that amount. While insomnia is more common in women than men, it does have an impact on both genders, and typically presents as difficulty in falling asleep, waking during the night (without external cause or needing to use the bathroom), waking too early in the morning, and less time actually spent asleep.
Insomnia’s impact carries through to waking hours as well, increasing tiredness during the day, increased napping, and a consequent cycle of finding it harder and harder to fall asleep at night. Decreased social interaction, withdrawing from activities, and general lethargy are common side effects of insomnia, especially if it is prolonged. However, it is usually treatable, with a combination of lifestyle changes, good sleep hygiene, supplements or medications, and/or therapy.
Snoring and Sleep Apnea
Snoring is a common problem that affects adults of all ages, though many people exhibit increases in snoring activity, severity, or appearance of symptoms for the first time as they age. Later in life, the muscles that are responsible for maintaining control in the airways tend to weaken. Other health effects and medications can also increase the chances of snoring in older adults. Both of these changes can make snoring more likely. In and of itself, snoring is not a health problem, but it can often be a warning sign of a more serious condition – sleep apnea.
In simple terms, sleep apnea is a condition where breathing is disturbed during sleep. Effectively, a person suffering from sleep apnea will stop breathing for a short period of time. When this happens, the body naturally increases alertness, metabolism, pulse rate, and other natural processes, with the brain sending out signals to increase the sense of urgency and get the person to start breathing again. This raises the level of consciousness in a sleeping person and may cause them to wake up. At the very least, it can drag someone suffering from sleep apnea out of deep sleep, into lighter, less useful sleep. The net impact is a decrease in sleep quality, and often an increase in insomnia or related effects.
Snoring and sleep apnea are often seen together. Noted night-time snoring combined with regular tiredness during the day is often diagnostically significant, and warrants sleep apnea testing, especially in seniors. Reduced muscle tone and control of the airways can cause them to more easily close or collapse during sleep.
Beware of Sleep Apnea!
Sleep apnea isn’t just a problem for sleep quality, either. It typically increases the risk of developing other, often more serious health problems, including high blood pressure, stroke, and cardiac abnormalities. Therefore, seniors who are exhibiting sleep apnea symptoms should consult their doctor for more conclusive testing. The good news is that sleep apnea can be treated, both with lifestyle changes as well as wearing a positive air pressure mask, or CPAP mask, at night while sleeping. This reduces or removes the increased health risks, and allows for better quality sleep in most people.
RLS – Restless Leg Syndrome
Another condition which increases the likelihood of sleep disruption is restless leg syndrome, often abbreviated as RLS. RLS is a movement disorder that typically causes irregular sensations in the legs. Many sufferers characterize these sensations as a burning or tingling – uncomfortable though not necessarily painful. It generally causes sufferers to move their legs around to change or eliminate the sensations they are experiencing, which can result in a lot of leg movement – hence the name.
This frequent leg movement required to get comfortable can make it hard for people to fall asleep. Unfortunately, RLS tends to affect seniors more than other age groups as well. While iron deficiency has been implicated as one of the causes, and is easily remedied with multivitamins or specific iron supplements, many people still suffer from RLS. Some drug treatments are also available, with varying success. The best option for seniors suffering from RLS or RLS-like symptoms is to discuss them and potential treatments with their healthcare provider.
PLMD – Periodic Limb Movement Disorder
Another movement disorder, separate from but related to RLS, is periodic limb movement disorder, or PLMD. Sufferers often make jerking or spasmodic movements with their arms and/or legs, outside their control, while they sleep. Normally, the body effectively paralyzes the muscles of the body while sleeping, so that, in a sense, individuals don’t respond to or act out their dreams. Those with PLMD don’t always seem to have those same triggers in place, and limbs can move uncontrollably during sleep. This can disrupt sleep and awaken the sufferer, or even present the risk of falling out of bed or other injuries. It has been shown to result in injury to sleeping partners as well in some cases. Like RLS, some medications are available to help control PLMD, and lifestyle changes have also been shown to have some impact on controlling PLMD symptoms.
While not a medical condition, partnered sleeping can often cause sleep disruptions, especially as couples age together. When one partner suffers from any of the aforementioned sleep problems, it can have an impact on the quantity and quality of sleep of both parties. At the same time, minor aspects of sleeping together, such as light snoring, which may have gone unnoticed or easily ignored during earlier adulthood may increase in intensity or severity with age. Discussing separate or alternative sleeping arrangements can often be a fraught topic, even for couples that have been together for a lengthy period of time. However, it is often necessary for quality sleep for one or both parties, and should not be off-limits in addressing insomnia and sleep disturbances, especially at an advanced age.
Excessive Sleepiness in Seniors
Common questions that many seniors may ask about sleep include, “Can I get too much sleep?” and “How much sleepiness during the day is ‘normal’ as I age?” In general, excessive sleep (more than 10-12 hours per night) may be a sign of medical problems, medication side effects, mental health problems, or a combination of all three. Seniors who find themselves sleeping excessively should consult their doctor and discuss options to determine the root cause.
At the same time, there is no denying that seniors tend to feel more sleepy during the day than younger adults. That, in and of itself, is not a problem or abnormal. But it can be a sign of sleep disturbances, disruptions, or issues, such as too little sleep, poor quality sleep, sleeping without a consistent routine, waking up frequently during the night, sleep disorders, medication side effects, or other sleep-related issues.
Naturally, for all the reasons discussed above, these problems are worth addressing, as sleep is so vitally important, especially in seniors. Excessive sleepiness increases the risk of seniors developing concomitant health issues, such as fatigue, irritability, mood swings, poor concentration and focus, and other behavioral problems that can diminish the quality of life.
There are also conditions that can cause excessive sleepiness, leading to actual sleep, throughout the day. The most well-known, narcolepsy, causes sufferers to suddenly and uncontrollably fall asleep without any of the usual signs or sensations that they are falling asleep. This can be extremely hazardous, and typically requires lifestyle changes and restrictions, such as not driving, in order to keep sufferers and those around them safe. However, this typically presents in early adulthood, and is not shown to have an increased incidence in seniors, and is unlikely to be the cause of any excessive sleepiness if it has not been previously diagnosed.
Other conditions leading to excessive sleepiness or sleep are exceedingly rare, such as African sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), which is an insect-borne illness and virtually impossible to contract if someone has not visited Africa recently.
Sleep and Alzheimer’s
A lot can be said about Alzheimer’s disease, which is perhaps one of the most pernicious, progressive brain diseases of our time. While Alzheimer’s can start to develop at middle age, it most commonly presents noticeable symptoms in seniors of varying ages. In addition to robbing seniors of their memories, and a host of other health effects that ultimately lead to death, Alzheimer’s can also cause disruption and problems with sleep.
Most often, seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s, even in the early stages, will wake up more frequently than those who are not suffering from it. Confusion, wandering, and disorientations are a natural result of these processes and can increase the risk of accidents, falls, getting lost, and other problems. Caring for a senior with Alzheimer’s who has these sleep issues may also result in sleep issues for the caregivers, spouse, and others.
Until a cure for Alzheimer’s is developed, the best steps that seniors and their caregivers can take to improve sleep safety and quality in those suffering from Alzheimer’s involve making some modifications to the home and sleeping area. Generally, keeping the bedroom and floors free of random objects or impediments, locking or securing medications and other dangerous objects away, keeping home doors locked so discourage wandering, putting in stair gates or additional security impediments, and putting handrails around beds and in the bathroom can all help reduce safety risks for seniors with Alzheimer’s.
Sleep and Temperature/Light Issues
Temperature and light can be important elements that promote or hinder sleep. Their role in sleep is exacerbated in seniors – especially temperature issues. Seniors often have decreased circulation, and tend to feel more “cold” more often. This makes them more prone to piling on the blankets or turning up the heat, and then being too hot during the night. Most research has shown that even in seniors, the ideal sleeping temperature is somewhat colder than most people naturally prefer. But finding an ideal balance, especially when sleeping with a partner who may have different preferences, can be a challenge.
Light also plays a role in sleep. Many nightshift workers can testify to the fact that sleeping during the day is not always easy, despite fatigue and tiredness. Our bodies use light as one of the cues for sleeping and wakefulness. Excessive outside light pollution or sleeping at irregular hours can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Likewise, sleeping with a night light or the lights on can also impair sleep quality. Dark and cool environs best help to promote quality sleep in adults of all ages, including seniors.
Night-Time Safety for Seniors
If seniors are suffering from sleep disorders or other health problems that can manifest sleep disturbances, such as dementia, then there’s a risk of injury, accidents, and other safety problems that can arise at night. Caregivers, family members, spouses, and other concerned loved ones can take various preparatory actions to decrease the likelihood of falls and other devastating injuries to seniors. These hazards generally fall into two categories: falls/accidents, and wandering/getting lost, the latter of which is more common with neurological impairments like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
According to the National Council on Aging, falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries in seniors today. While falling can occur and result in serious injury at any time of day, and among any age group, falls in seniors are typically fare more common and far more devastating. Disorientation, tripping over objects, decreased visual acuity, poor lighting, a lack of handholds for support, and medication side effects are all common contributors to night-time falls in seniors.
Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate or manage most of these hazards:
- Keep the floor clear of cables, cords, and objects.
- Ensure lights from the bedroom to the bathroom can be easily turned on, within reach of the bed if at all possible.
- Use night lights.
- If you have loose throw rugs, replace them with anti-slip rugs or an anti-slip backing so that they will not become a trip hazard.
- Install handrails or holds in the home if the senior is unsteady on their feet.
- Consider motion sensors so that lights can come on automatically when needed.
Seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other cognitive impairments can be prone to wander off at night, and often can make it quite far from their home. With no identification and limited awareness of who they are, where they live, and other critical information, this can present a real problem for seniors and caregivers alike. Naturally, this also increases the likelihood of sustaining injuries.
There are various measures that can be taken to reduce wandering, including lifestyle changes during the waking hours, utilizing medical alert or alarm devices that can be worn on the person, using stair gates, ensuring doors remain locked, and adding additional locks to doors to make it harder for them to be opened from inside.
Tips and Advice for Better Sleep in Seniors
Across the board, there are many things that seniors can do to help improve the quality and quantity of their sleep. These actions range from lifestyle changes to addressing medical issues, medication side effects, and more serious sleep disturbances with medical professionals. In general, most tips and advice related to better sleep for seniors (and those of all ages) fall under the heading of good sleep hygiene and help to make it easier to fall asleep faster, stay asleep, and get better quality sleep.
1. Exercise Regularly
Regular exercise during the day is not only important for physical and mental health, but it can help to promote sleep, help people stay asleep, and reduce the risk or severity of developing health conditions which can impact sleep in the first place. Outdoor exercise improves these benefits, since sunlight exposure helps the body to maintain a natural daily cycle, known as circadian rhythm. Even very light, non-stressful exercise shows benefits for seniors – high-impact or cardio-heavy exercises are not required.
Depending on a senior’s overall physical health levels and preferences, desired exercise can be as simple as going for a walk or doing light stretching, swimming, yoga, bicycling, or more demanding aerobics or gym work. There are many excellent resources available online with good, medically-backed advice for exercises for seniors. As always, it’s best to consult a medical professional before beginning an exercise regimen, especially for senior citizens and those with pre-existing medical conditions. 15 to 30 minutes a day, or a few times a week, of even light exercise can dramatically improve sleep quality, and reduce or cure insomnia and related sleep problems in many seniors.
2. Maintain a Healthy Diet
It’s no secret that a well-balanced diet helps promote overall physical and mental health. The same holds true for sleep. Some tips for seniors to help maintain a healthy diet, conducive to good sleep, include:
- Avoid diets high in saturated fats, sugars, and processed foods, as they can contribute to sleep disturbances and insomnia.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which are also known for disrupting sleep, especially if consumed within 6 to 8 hours of bedtime.
- Don’t eat a heavy meal close to bedtime, as that can make it harder to fall asleep. Digesting a meal increases metabolism, which is not conducive to sleep – in fact, it’s the opposite process of preparing for sleep.
- If you suffer from digestive issues, avoid eating near bedtime entirely. Eating later in the evening can result in digestive issues like heartburn, acid reflux, gas-based discomfort, and so on.
- Those prone to waking up to use the bathroom should reduce or eliminate food and/or drink intake near bed, to avoid these bodily wake-up calls.
Eating a balanced diet, at the right times of day, is a simple lifestyle change that can make a meaningful difference in sleep quality.
3. Reduce Stress Levels
Stress can lead to insomnia and sleep problems in people of all ages. Chronic stress can also cause significant health problems, both physical and mental. One of the most common pieces of advice to reduce insomnia and increase sleep quality is to take active measures to reduce stress levels, especially before bedtime. Various therapies with professionals (which we’ll discuss in more detail in a later section of this guide) can help in this regard. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and similar approaches can also make a big difference in stress levels and improve ease of falling asleep and sleep quality.
4. Avoid Naps If Possible
While naps can be restorative, they can also disrupt night-time sleep. This is especially true is naps are longer than 20-30 minutes or take place in the late afternoon or evening hours. Therefore, seniors should try to avoid napping on a regular basis. If excessive sleepiness is present during waking hours, it may be an indication of poor quality or quantity of sleep at night or an underlying medical condition (or medication side effect) that warrants discussion with a doctor.
5. Maintain a Consistent Sleep Routine
Experts agree that a consistent sleep routine – going to bed at roughly the same time each night, and waking at roughly the same time each day – helps your body to maintain its natural rhythms and properly regulate sleep. While it’s not necessary to rigidly stick to a schedule, or set an alarm clock, seniors should avoid wild swings in their waking/sleeping cycles when possible, especially if they struggle with insomnia or other sleep issues.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a famous doctor, advises a breathing technique known as the 4-7-8. You may use it sleep according to a routine.
6. Take Steps to Address Temperature, Noise, and Light in the Bedroom
As discussed above, temperature, light, and even noise can all be problems in the bedroom that interfere with sleep. Cool, quiet, and dark are the ideal situation for optimal sleeping conditions. They help regulate sleep in the brain, and allow the natural processes of sleep to take over most effectively. Set up an ideal sleep environment in the bedroom to help improve sleep quality.
Earplugs or a white noise machine, or even the whirring of a fan can be useful to help block out unwanted noise or disruptions from the outside world. Blackout curtains can help address unwanted light bleeding in from outside. Adjusting the temperature with a controllable thermostat or adjusting a fan in the bedroom can often make a world of difference in achieving the right environment for sleep.
Mattress and bed comfort levels are also worth considering. Many seniors struggle with existing aches and pains from conditions such as arthritis, and a poorly-chosen mattress that doesn’t offer good support can simply exacerbate these pains. More pain means more difficulty sleeping and staying asleep. A comfortable mattress, or one that offers variable firmness, is often a useful investment. Quality, comfortable, non-irritating sheets, pillows, and pillowcases are also useful in creating an ideal sleep environment. Adjustable beds can also help to improve sleep quality when dealing with limited mobility, existing pain, or various health conditions.
7. Keep the Bedroom (and Bed) for Sleep Only
One of the underlying principles of good sleep hygiene is to keep the bedroom and bed, specifically, for sleep only. That means no watching TV, reading, or other similar activities in bed, or even the bedroom if they can be avoided. This helps create a mental association that the bed, and the bedroom, are for sleep only. That association can serve as a powerful trigger to help promote sleep.
8. Avoid Screens at Bedtime
The modern world is full of electronic screens, and most people are exposed to them all day long, including at night. However, most modern research has shown that screens can interfere with sleep, due to the blue wavelengths of light that they emit. The National Sleep Foundation explains that the blue light from electronic screens suppresses the production of melatonin, the primary hormone that regulates sleep in the body. Therefore, to help promote better sleep, avoid smartphone, laptop, computer, or television screens at least an hour before bed time. It will also help to decrease mental stimulation, which in and of itself helps to prepare the mind and body for sleep.
9. Get Into a Bedtime Routine
When preparing for bed, it’s best to follow a consistent routine. That helps train the mind and body that it is time to wind down and get ready for sleep. While the exact routine that makes the most sense will vary from person to person, doing the same things, in the same order, is the best prelude to a good night’s sleep.
10. Avoid Eating or Drinking Too Much Before Bed
Though it’s touched on above, eating or drinking too much in the hours leading up to bedtime can result in the need to wake up more frequently during the night to use the bathroom. This is especially true in seniors who may have weaker bladder control (common in women who have given birth), or more frequent urges to urinate (common in men with enlarged prostates). It’s important to remain hydrated throughout the day, but decreasing fluid intake and food intake in the hours preceding bedtime helps reduce these sleep interruptions at night. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol, both of which are diuretics and increase urination frequency, is also sound advice.
11. Shower or Bathe Before Bed
Many adults prefer to shower or bathe in the morning, after a night’s sleep, to start the day fresh, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s also not necessary to shower or bathe before sleep for hygiene purposes. However, it can be beneficial for sleep hygiene purposes. A warm shower or bath before bed can help the body to de-stress and increase calm and a sense of well-being. It also helps physiologically, as following a warm bath or shower, the body cools at a more rapid rate, mimicking the drop in body temperature that occurs naturally when we are falling asleep. Therefore, this process helps to make it easier to fall asleep, and has been shown to reduce the symptoms of restless leg syndrome as well.
12. Get Medical, Medicinal, or Therapeutic Help
If sleep problems persist, it’s best to seek professional help. Doctors and healthcare providers, caregivers, and therapists all have significant experience in dealing with insomnia and sleep disturbances. Geriatric specialists will also have expertise in dealing with sleep issues in seniors specifically. If sleep disturbances are the result of an underlying medical condition or conditions, that’s best to get diagnosed sooner rather than later. Likewise, if sleep issues are the result of medication side effects – a doctor or other healthcare provider may be able to offer alternative medications or treatments that don’t affect sleep.
In the case of sleep apnea, seeking prompt medical advice is a must. Sleep apnea in and of itself can be hazardous and possibly life-threatening to seniors, and, as discussed earlier, may indicate a more serious underlying health problem. Even less-serious conditions like general insomnia can cascade and become more serious and detrimental over time. Therefore, it’s always best to address these issues with a doctor or other medical professional, rather than allowing them to fester and possibly getting worse.
Various psychotherapy techniques can also be beneficial for dealing with sleep problems. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health and emotional issues can all contribute to sleep problems, and addressing these root causes can help resolve them. Psychiatrists may prescribe medications for these conditions that can help. In addition, cognitive behavioral therapy has also been shown to be effective in treating insomnia, essentially helping to identify and reinforce behaviors that can counter insomnia, frequent waking, difficulty falling asleep, and so on. It’s especially useful in combating anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, and similar conditions that can trigger or worsen insomnia. In fact, some studies have found cognitive behavioral therapy to be as effective or even more effective than chemical sleeping pills in terms of treating insomnia and sleep disturbances.
With that said, supplements and/or sleeping pills can often be useful (though should only be used under the advice and supervision of a physician or other healthcare professional). As melatonin is the hormone in the body that regulates sleep, melatonin supplement products taken in the evening can help with falling asleep. These supplements are typically safe for most seniors and sold over-the-counter. However, the supplement industry is not regulated the way drugs are, and therefore should only be purchased from reputable establishments to ensure proper dosage and avoid potential contamination with other substances.
Sleeping pills are typically not recommended for seniors. Both prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids aren’t meant to be taken long-term for insomnia and sleep problems, and won’t resolve the underlying causes of insomnia. They can also mask other health conditions that may be contributing to insomnia, making them harder to diagnose. As many seniors already take several medications for other health issues, the risk of adverse interactions and side effects are increased. Sleeping pills also depress breathing, which can already be a struggle for many seniors. They often have side effects that can decrease balance and increases dizziness or disorientation, making falls and injuries more likely. They also have been known to cause issues with patients suffering from cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Therefore, most experts recommend seniors do not take over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids or sleeping pills as an option. They may be prescribed or recommended in certain, individual cases or for occasional insomnia, but should only be taken at the recommendation and under the supervision of a doctor or healthcare professional.
Helpful Senior Sleep Resources for Further Reading
There are many good resources available online to provide further details, useful ideas and techniques, and otherwise address senior sleep needs and problems. Our guide is an excellent starting point, but for seniors or loved ones looking for more information on specific topics, or geriatric-specific information on sleep, the following resources can be quite helpful:
- The National Sleep Foundation
- The Alzheimer’s Association
- The Dementia Society of America
- The Restless Leg Syndrome Foundation
- The American Sleep Apnea Foundation
- The Aging Life Care Association
- The Mayo Clinic
- The Cleveland Clinic
- Sleep Education, from theAmerican Academy of Sleep Medicine