Elderly Sleep Disorders: Symptoms and Tips to Control

For the elderly to feel fresh, cheerful, and energetic during the day, they should have healthy and adequate sleep because insufficient and inappropriate sleep can gradually cause physical and mental disorders.

There is scientific evidence that proper sleep, consistent with our body’s biological clock at any age, helps to properly cleanse the brain of waste products harmful to its functioning. For this reason, if a person’s sleep is not adequate during life, especially in old age, the brain gradually loses its ability to function regularly, and the quality of life decreases.

Studies have shown that dysfunctional sleep causes the brain to degenerate more rapidly and increases the risk of neurocognitive decline and Alzheimer‘s. People can have sleep disorders at any age, but we will continue to address the elderly who do not get enough sleep and their problems in this article.

If the person sleeps less than 3.5 hours, he/she is suffering from sleep deprivation. However, if the person sleeps more than 8.5 hours, he/she is oversleeping. Evidence suggests that a chronic pattern of oversleeping or excessive sleep deprivation can reduce life expectancy and increases premature mortality.

Types of Sleep Disorders

Worried Senior Man In Bed At Night Suffering With Insomnia and sleep disorder

When older people are asked about their sleep patterns, they often exaggerate and complain about insomnia or oversleeping. Simultaneously, the doctor finds out more closely that the older adult has a relatively good night’s sleep and only thinks that he or she is not getting a good night’s sleep. For example, he sleeps lightly but believes he has not slept at all. Although these people complain of insomnia, they do not feel tired during the day and can go about their daily activities with the utmost energy.

Such people do not need particular intervention and constant follow-up, and the problem can be solved only with straightforward advice and reassurance to the elderly. Sometimes, symptoms indicate a serious problem and are the signs of sleep disorders in the elderly.

Three Types of Sleep Disorders:

  • Having a problem getting to sleep: Some of the elderly have problems getting to sleep, and it takes a long time to sleep after they get into bed.
  • Having a problem maintaining sleep: In this type of disorder, a person falls asleep but wakes up after a few hours and can no longer sleep. It may be due to sleep deprivation, mood disorders, or depression.
  • Problems in the sleep rhythm: In this condition, the elderly fall asleep earlier than others and wake up earlier than them; it means that he is awake during the hours when most of the family members are sleeping, and vice versa.

Older people need less time to sleep than young and middle-aged people. If young and middle-aged people need 6-9 hours of sleep, this amount is 6.5-7 hours in the elderly. The best time for the elderly to sleep is at night, and shift work is not suitable for them at all, and the person must go to bed at a specific time with a regular schedule and get up at a particular time.

Cause of Insomnia in the Elderly

The cause of insomnia in the elderly might be primary or secondary.

  • Primary insomnia: No known cause for insomnia can be found in primary insomnia. Of course, in these cases, psychiatric reasons are more important than other causes. Psychiatric disorders, such as depression, mania, anxiety, etc., can cause sleep disturbances. If it is proven that the patient suffers from a psychiatric disorder, the problem of sleep deprivation will be solved by treating the condition in many cases.
  • Secondary insomnia: In secondary insomnia, there are reasons such as the elderly suffering from various diseases such as infectious diseases, heart, kidney, cancer, chronic pain, and antidepressants.

Daily sleep helps the brain function better. The elderly should sleep between 1:00 – 3:00 in the afternoon. The elderly should not sleep after 6 PM as it may interfere with nighttime sleep. Sleep habits are essential at any age, but they become more critical in the elderly. 

In most cases, especially in the elderly, insomnia is a disorder that occurs due to a health problem. In some cases, addressing the issue of primary hygiene will ultimately be a cure for insomnia. Sleep problems such as insomnia and nightmare can also be linked to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. While the underlying cause of insomnia may not be treatable, some treatments can help people with dementia find their insomnia cure.

Recommendations for Sound Sleep for the Seniors

  • Go to the bedroom at a fixed time.
  • Make the lights dim and create a relaxing environment for sleeping.
  • Do not use the bedroom to watch TV, work with the Internet, eat, etc.
  • Limit the consumption of foods such as tea, chocolate, caffeinated beverages, foods containing colorants, and additives. Limit these foods after 6 PM.
  • consume foods such as yogurt and milk that contain a substance called tryptophan after 6 PM. Tryptophan contributes to the quality of sleep at night.
  • Limit Fluid intake after 6:00 PM. Excessive fluid intake and bloating force the elderly to wake up to go to the bathroom. That can lead to fragmentation of sleep and a decline in its quality.
  • Don’t eat heavy and fatty foods in the evening and at night. That causes the stomach acid to return, which is a factor in staying awake. There should be at least 2 hours between the time of the last meal and sleep.
  • Increase physical and mental activity during the day because it helps you sleep better at night.
  • If you cannot sleep after going to bed, get out of bed, and entertain yourself with something until you feel sleepy.
  • Do not change your sleeping place. Well lit bedroom should not be cold or hot, and no loud noise should be heard in it.
  • If you have pain or a chronic illness, be sure to treat it under the doctor’s supervision to reduce sleep problems.
  • Use relaxation techniques at the beginning of sleep, especially for the elderly who suffer from anxiety.

Symptoms of Insomnia and Poor Quality Sleep in the Elderly

Sick senior woman with headache, fatigue, lack of sleep and insomnia

Symptoms include aggression, headaches during the day, irritability, stress, changes in functioning and social relationships, impaired memory and attention, impaired speech and rhythm of speech, impaired emotion control, difficulty making decisions, problem-solving, and planning. Insomnia aggravates cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure, respiratory problems, etc.

 First, to treat insomnia, it is necessary to determine the patient’s history of insomnia with correct history and careful examination. Treatment should be considered based on whether there is a mental or physical disorder. Treatment can be pharmacological and non-pharmacological. In any case, the medication must be prescribed by a doctor. The elderly should not take the available sleeping pills in any way. These drugs are addictive, and after being accustomed to them, it is hard to stop the usage of them. It should also be noted that taking these drugs for a long time leads to losing their effectiveness.

These drugs are helpful in the short term but cause problems for the person in a long time. Doctors usually do not prescribe sleeping pills for more than two weeks. Based on the doctor’s advice the drug must be discontinued. Sleeping pills should be discontinued gradually, and abrupt discontinuation may cause side effects such as increased insomnia or anxiety.


Sleep disorder is a distressing issue or a small irritation, but it is a real sleep disorder and can be treated. If you think your loved one has this disorder, talk to your geriatrician about it. Achieve appropriate and safe treatment by following its causes. The good news is that most doctors consider cognitive and behavioral therapies, such as relaxation exercises, breathing exercises, and behavioral therapy. These treatments are time-consuming but are usually very safe and effective. Often, these approaches are effective in helping the elderly feel better about their sleep problems.


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Use this article only as educational material. You must consult your doctor and/or specialist prior to using it. Read more about this disclaimer.

Source onlinelibrary healthline helpguide
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6 months ago

Thank you. I rarely wake up during the nights, but it’s tough for me to go to sleep. Now that I’ve read this, I know maybe it’s because I drink tea at night, and the last thing I do when I go to bed is checking my phone. I should find a way to stop doing these things.

6 months ago

I don’t remember sleeping for more than 5 hours a day, even when I was younger. And I’ve never had headaches either! Besides, I always fall asleep when the tv is on. It’s impossible for me to fall asleep in a quiet place.

6 months ago

As far as I remember, I’ve had lots of difficulties sleeping since I was a child. And this has gone worse as I’m getting older. I’ve tried a wide variety of ways, from different kinds of pills to meditation before sleep. However, most of them worked for no more than a couple of weeks. I’m totally frustrated. Is there any unique or empirical solution for it?

5 months ago

I think reading books before sleeping is the best activity. Because our mind gets tired and we can get sleep very soon. I can suggest some comic books to the users of this site. Or if you have a fun partner, you can play chess or backgammon with them and then try to sleep.

Reply to  Jepeto
17 days ago

I can’t agree more! Anything related to reading before bed can help sleep better, like doing some paperwork, correspondence, or even writing letters or emails.

20 days ago

Well, of course, there are tons of remedies to cure this, and it’s up to you what you choose. But for me, herbal remedies did a fine job fixing fix it. Valerian deep sleep tea is the most dependable and the safest source to deal with sleep issues.
I have been drinking this tea since last month and can sense the change in my sleeping routine. It’s a mixture of organic herbs, so don’t worry about any side effects. Try it once. You might love it.