Elderly Sleep Disorders

We can all experience sleep disorders at any stage of life. As we get older though, our sleep patterns and habits begin to change. This can bring on sleep disorders in people who never experienced problems before in their lives.

Causes of Sleep Disorders in the Elderly

Some common causes for sleep disorders in the elderly include:

Just as there are different causes of sleep disorders in the elderly, there are different types of sleep disorders people may encounter. Let's take a look at what they are and how they can be treated.

Excessive Sleep in the Elderly

You may think that there's nothing wrong with getting a lot of sleep. However, excessive sleep is the sign of a problem just as much as not getting enough sleep. A condition called hypersomnia is when someone sleeps too much during the day. People with this condition may sleep all-night long and still feel sleepy throughout the day, taking long naps to combat their fatigue. A doctor can test for this condition and determine what type of hypersomnia you may have. This will help figure out the proper treatment. Behavioral therapy and sometimes prescription medicines are used to treat excessive sleepiness.

Insomnia in the Elderly

At the opposite end of the spectrum of excessive sleep is insomnia. We’re all familiar with this sleep disorder as it can cause you to stay awake all night. Some people with insomnia have trouble falling asleep while others will wake in the middle of the night and not be able to get back to sleep. Either way, insomnia can be grueling. While some insomnia is not caused by any other medical problems, other cases are. This type of insomnia can be triggered by conditions such as COPD or chronic pain. These conditions can keep a person up all night. If you are suffering from insomnia, be sure to first tell your doctor. He or she may suggest an over-the-counter medication if your insomnia is not caused by an underlying condition. If it is, your doctor may switch your current medications to see if that will help you sleep better. Sometimes, cognitive behavior therapy is also introduced to help a patient lower anxiety and get rid of any thoughts that may be inhibiting sleep.

Sleep Apnea in the Elderly

Sleep apnea is often thrown into the mix with basic snoring. However, it is a different problem, one that can be life-threatening in some. Sleep apnea is when the tissues at the back of the throat between the mouth and lungs either briefly collapses so much that you stop breathing. When this happens, sensors in your body tell the brain to wake up and re-open your airways, allowing you to breathe again. This can happen a couple of times a night for some people or many times in just one hour for others. Some signs that you could have sleep apnea include:

  • Choking or gasping for air
  • Loud snoring
  • Fatigue
  • Being extra sleepy during the day
  • Frequent sore or dry throat

For the millions of people who have sleep apnea, the main cause is obesity. Being obese can constrict airways, leading to sleep apnea. In order to diagnose you with sleep apnea, a doctor will not only review your personal and family history, but also do a full physical exam. From there, you may be sent for a sleep study where you are monitored as you sleep. This will determine if you stop breathing while sleeping, how long, and how many times a night.

If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor may prescribe a sleep apnea CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. This is the popular course of treatment. The CPAP machine uses air pressure to keep your airways open while you’re sleeping. There are also sleep apnea masks, pillows, and other devices that can help.

If no treatments work over time, your doctor may advise sleep apnea surgery.

Sleep Walking in the Elderly

Sleep walking is more than just getting out of bed and walking around at night. It may also involve first sitting up and bed and being confused. Other people wake up and bolt out of bed as if they’re being chased. In extreme cases people actually look for their car keys and try to drive away!

Although sleep walking is more common in children and teens, it can also affect the elderly. It can be caused by:

  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of sleep
  • Alcohol or drug use

Any seniors who start sleep walking should see their doctor to see what else may be causing the sleepwalking. Seniors who are prone to sleepwalking can also be prone to falls and accidents. If this is the case, a bed alarm may be a good idea so that others in the home will know if the person is trying to get out of bed. This can prevent falls and injuries.

Sleep Aids for the Elderly

While it may be tempting to reach for sleeping aids and sleeping pills if you are battling a sleep disorder, you should first consult your doctor. Many over-the-counter sleeping pills and aids do not interact well with prescription medicines.

Many doctors will first try natural remedies such as a change in diet or activity to combat sleep disorders before prescribing pills.

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