Common Causes of Sleep Problems Among Senior Adults

Sleep disorders are more commonplace among the elderly than in other demographic cohorts in the United States. 12 to 20 percent of seniors are thought to suffer from insomnia or related sleep disorders. Researchers generally maintain that seniors sleep about 10 minutes less per night for every decade they age. The decrease in sleep can be unhealthy, particularly if it results in a dip below an average of at least seven hours of sleep per night.

In this article, we discuss some of the most commonplace causes of sleep issues among senior adults. We also present information on ways to address sleep issues faced by seniors.

Most Common Underlying Reasons for Sleep Problems Among Senior Adults

Identifying some of the most common underlying reasons for sleep issues or problems is the starting point of our discussion. The most commonplace underlying causes of sleep problems include:

  • Poor sleep habits and sleep environment. A variety of poor sleep habits contribute to a lack of sleep. These include irregular sleep hours, consumption of alcohol before bedtime, and falling asleep while watching television. When it comes to environmental issues, it is important to ensure that a senior’s room is comfortable, dark, and quiet. A senior should also embark on bedtime rituals that are conducive to sleep.
  • Pain or medical conditions. Health conditions cause or contribute to sleep problems for seniors. These health issues include a frequent need to urinate, pain, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, nighttime heartburn, and Alzheimer’s disease. All of these can interfere with sleep. Talk to your doctor to address any health issues impacting a senior’s sleep.
  • Menopause and post-menopause. During menopause, many women find that hot flashes and night sweats can interrupt sleep. Even post-menopause sleep problems can continue. Improving your daytime habits, especially diet and exercise, can help.
  • MedicationsOlder adults tend to take more medications than younger people. Typically people over the age of 65 take multiple medications. The combination of drugs, as well as their side effects, can impair sleep for a senior. A doctor may be able to make changes to a senior’s medications to enhance or improve sleep of a senior.
  • Lack of exercise. If an older adult is too sedentary, seniors may never feel sleepy or feel sleepy all the time. Regular aerobic exercise during the day can promote good sleep for a senior.
  • StressSignificant life changes like retirement, the death of a loved one, or moving from a family home can cause stress. Nothing improves your mood better than finding someone you can talk to face-to-face. This can include a friend or family member. It can also include a mental health professional in some instances.
  • Lack of social engagement. Social activities, family, and work can keep a senior’s activity level up and prepare an older individual for a good night’s sleep. If a senior is retired, try volunteering, joining a seniors’ group, or taking an adult education class. Moving into an assisted living community can be a good idea in some cases for a senior who wants to enhance his or her social interaction.
  • Sleep disorders. Restless Legs Syndrome or RLS and sleep-disordered breathing (such as snoring and sleep apnea) occur more frequently in older adults than among younger individuals.
  • Lack of sunlightBright sunlight helps regulate melatonin and maintain healthy sleep-wake cycles. A senior should get at least two hours of sunlight a day. Keep shades open during the day. A senior might want to consider the use of a light therapy box.

Diet Strategies to Improve a Senior Adult’s Sleep

Dietary changes can be beneficial when it comes to enhancing a person’s sleep and eliminating sleep-related issues or problems.

  • Limit caffeine late in the day. Avoid coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate late in the day. Avoid alcohol before bedtime. Some people think that alcohol makes a person sleepy. In fact, alcohol has the propensity to disrupt a senior’s sleep.
  • Satisfy your hunger before bed. Have a light snack such as low-sugar cereal, yogurt, or warm milk.
  • Cut down on sugary foods. Eating a diet high in sugar and refined carbs, including white bread, white rice, pasta, and French fries, can cause wakefulness and restlessness at night. Eating these types of foods has the potential to pull you out of deep, restorative stages of sleep.
  • Avoid big meals or spicy foods just before bedtime. Large or spicy meals may lead to indigestion or discomfort. This can be particularly problematic if seniors eat these foods too late. Try to eat a modest-sized dinner at least three hours before bedtime.
  • Minimize liquid intake before sleep. A senior should limit what is drunk an hour and a half before bedtime. This helps limit how often a senior wakes up to use the bathroom at night.

Exercise to Improve a Senior Adult’s Sleep

Regular exercise is very important for seniors in several different ways. Regular exercise helps improve a senior’s nightly sleep. Exercise, particularly aerobic activity, releases chemicals in a senior’s body that promote more restful sleep. Even if a senior has mobility issues, there are various activities an older person can do to prepare themselves for a good night’s sleep. A senior should always consult a doctor before starting a new fitness program.

Examples of exercise seniors should consider as part of a program to improve health and enhance sleep includes the following:

  • Swimming and water exercises. Swimming laps are a gentle, low-impact way to enhance health and improve sleep for a senior. Swimming is great for easing joint pain and addressing weak muscles. Many community centers and YMCA pools have swim programs just for older adults and water-based exercise classes (also geared towards older women and men).
  • Dancing. If you love to move to music, go dancing or take a dance class. Dance classes are also a great way to extend a senior’s social network.
  • Lawn bowling, bocce, or pétanque. These ball games are gentle, low-impact ways to exercise. The more a senior walks and the brisker the pace, the more aerobic benefit an older woman or man will experience.
  • Golfing. Golf is another exercise that does not require vigorous movement. Walking adds an aerobic bonus, and spending time on the course with friends can improve the mood of a senior adult.
  • Cycling or running. If a senior is in relatively good shape, a senior can consider running and cycling. Both can be done outdoors or on a stationary bike or treadmill.

Research Study on Exercise to Improve Sleep for Senior Adults

A study at Northwestern University, reported by the National Sleep Foundation, found that aerobic exercise resulted in the most dramatic improvement in sleep quality, including sleep duration, for older adults with a diagnosis of insomnia. Data from the study include:

  • The participants exercised for two 20-minute sessions or one 30-to-40-minute session four times per week.
  • They worked at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate on at least two activities, including walking or using a stationary bicycle or treadmill.
  • Their sleep quality improved from a diagnosis of being a poor sleeper to a good sleeper.
  • They reported fewer depressive symptoms, more vitality, and less daytime sleepiness.

Stress Reduction to Improve Sleep for Senior Adults

Stress and anxiety built up during the day can also interfere with sleep at night. This includes stress endured by seniors that can negatively impact sleep. There are meaningful steps that a senior can take to reduce stress to improve sleep (and other aspects of life as well).

  • Keep a journal to record worries before bedtime.
  • On a to-do list, check off tasks completed. List goals for tomorrow and then let them go for the night.
  • Listen to calming music.
  • Read a book that makes you feel relaxed.
  • Get a massage from a friend or partner.
  • Use a relaxation technique to prepare for sleep.
  • Seek opportunities during the day to talk face-to-face with a friend about what’s troubling in a senior’s life.

If a senior has come to a juncture at which nothing seems to be working to improve sleep, that individual should seek assistance from a physician. This is an important step to rule out some underlying disease or medical condition. It is also useful to find solutions to an ongoing sleep issue, problem, or disorder.