Aging and Insomnia: Symptoms, Causes, and How to Beat Senior Insomnia

Insomnia is a problem than plagues a significant segment of the U.S. adult population. This includes senior citizens. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, somewhere between 30 to 48 percent of seniors are affected by symptoms of insomnia. At the high end of the estimate, that means nearly half of all people in their Golden Years struggle with not getting enough sleep. 

If you suffer from insomnia, being armed with more knowledge about the condition can put you in a better position to combat it and have healthier sleep habits. In this article we provide you with basic information about symptoms of, causes of, and strategies to beat senior insomnia. 

Symptoms of Senior Insomnia

There can be some variation between the insomnia related symptoms experienced by different women and men in the latter years of their lives. With that said, according to insomnia researchers associated with the Mayo Clinic, some of the more commonplace symptoms of this disorder are:

  • Difficulty falling asleep at night
  • Waking up during the night
  • Waking up too early
  • Not feeling well-rested after a night’s sleep
  • Daytime tiredness or sleepiness
  • Irritability, depression, or anxiety
  • Difficulty paying attention, focusing on tasks or remembering
  • Increased errors or accidents
  • Ongoing worries about sleep

Most Common Causes of Insomnia Among Older Individuals 

There are a number of common underlying causes among older individuals who are fighting insomnia. The Mayo Clinic has identified the most prevalent of these causes to be:

  • Stress. Concerns about health, finances, the aging process, family matters, the future, and so forth can create stress which can underpin insomnia among older women and men. 
  • Schedule disruptions. Your circadian rhythms act as an internal clock, guiding such things as your sleep-wake cycle, metabolism and body temperature. Disrupting your body’s circadian rhythms can lead to insomnia. If you are experiencing disruptions in your life, these issues can result in an older person experiencing insomnia. For example, if you moved from your home into an assisted living community, this transition can be highly disruptive in some instances and result in an individual suffering from insomnia. Other schedule interruptions that can cause insomnia include such things as jet lag, working a late or early shift, or frequently changing shifts. (These types of causes typically do not apply to a senior citizen.)
  • Poor sleep habits. Poor sleep habits include an irregular bedtime schedule, naps, stimulating activities before bed, an uncomfortable sleep environment, and using your bed for such things as eating or watching TV. Computers, TVs, video games, smartphones or other screens just before bed can interfere with your sleep cycle. These are issues that oftentimes do contribute to an older person’s struggle with insomnia. 
  • Eating too much late in the evening. Eating too much may cause you to feel physically uncomfortable while lying down. Many people also experience heartburn, a backflow of acid and food from the stomach into the esophagus after eating, which may keep you awake. A light, healthy snack an hour before bedtime can be acceptable, however.
  • Mental health disorders. Anxiety issues may disrupt a senior person’s sleep. Awakening too early can be a sign of depression. Insomnia often occurs with other mental health disorders as well.
  • Medications. Many prescription drugs can interfere with sleep, such as certain antidepressants and medications for asthma or blood pressure. Many over-the-counter medications contain caffeine and other stimulants that can disrupt sleep.
  • Medical conditions. Examples of conditions linked with insomnia include chronic pain, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), overactive thyroid, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Sleep-related disorders. Sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing periodically throughout the night, interrupting your sleep. Restless legs syndrome causes unpleasant sensations in your legs and an almost irresistible desire to move them, which may prevent you from falling asleep.
  • Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Coffee, tea, cola and other caffeinated drinks are stimulants. Drinking them in the late afternoon or evening can keep you from falling asleep at night. Nicotine in tobacco products is another stimulant that can interfere with sleep. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it prevents deeper stages of sleep and often causes awakening in the middle of the night.

Statistics Regarding Senior Insomnia

There are a number of key statistics to bear in mind about senior insomnia:

  • 36 percent of women and men at or above the age of 65 without health problems have a hard time sleeping, even insomnia
  • 52 percent of people 65 and older with three concurrent illnesses have sleep issues
  • 69 percent of individuals 65 and older have sleep problems or insomnia 
  • Adults between the ages of 62 and 88 use at least one prescription medication

Tips and Tactics for Better Sleep for Seniors

There are some relatively easy tips and tactics a senior can employ in order to combat senior insomnia. These include:

  • Avoid taking naps during the day.
  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule.
  • Try a relaxation technique such as a guided meditation or mindful breathing.
  • Limit caffeinated substances, nicotine and alcohol.
  • Exercise daily — but make sure to do it no later than six hours before bedtime.
  • Maintain the same wake-up time each morning.
  • Talk to a counselor if you’re feeling anxious or depressed.
  • Only use your bed for sleeping — no reading or watching TV.
  • Only use your bed when you feel sleepy.
  • If you can’t sleep, get up until you feel tired and are ready to try again.

Short-Term Versus Long-Term Insomnia

Not all bouts of insomnia impacting people in their Golden Years is long-term. There are instances in which a senior may have some sort of life experience that results in insomnia, but only for a shorter period of time. Indeed, if insomnia lasts for 30 days or less, it typically is classified as short-term. An example of the type of event that might result in more short-term insomnia for a person who is a senior citizen is the death of a spouse.

When to Seek Medical Assistance for Senior Insomnia

If insomnia has persisted for over 30 days, you should consider seeking medical attention. If insomnia is effecting your ability to effectively tend to tasks associated with your daily life, you should seek medical attention.