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Sleep Problems in the Elderly – Why Do Elderly People Sleep So Much?

Our sleep patterns change as we age

Sleep is so important throughout your entire life. However, many seem to have problems with it as they age.

As your body changes with age, so do your sleep cycle and rhythm. The question now becomes: do you have a sleep disorder or do you simply need to readjust your sleep habits to your age?

We will start off talking about some common sleep disorders and continue on with how your sleep changes as you age as well as some tips for a better sleep.

Insomnia in the Elderly

There are two categories of insomnia in the elderly. First off, there is sleep onset insomnia and secondly, sleep maintenance insomnia.

Sleep onset insomnia is when you have difficulties falling asleep. Sleep maintenance insomnia on the other hand is when you can’t stay asleep for a longer period of time.

In addition, the duration of insomnia in the elderly can also be split into 3 categories: transient insomnia, acute insomnia and chronic insomnia.

Transient insomnia can last anywhere from a few days to a week. Acute insomnia on the other hand may last a few weeks, and chronic insomnia can even last years if left untreated.

Suffering from this sleep disorder can have a significant impact on your health, safety and quality of life.

Symptoms of Insomnia in the Elderly

During the day, symptoms include excessive sleepiness, depression, accidents due to sleep deprivation, irritability, impaired memory, and difficulty concentrating.

During the night, symptoms include trouble staying asleep, taking over 30 minutes to fall asleep, waking up too early, and the inability to fall sleep again.

Insomnia Test

If any of the above seems familiar to you, we highly recommend you look into it.

Generally speaking, the elderly should find themselves having problems with staying awake and not the other way around. There is also the option to do an insomnia test online. However, it is by no means a substitute for your general practitioner.

You can take the test here if you are interested.

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Sleep cycle changes in the elderly

Generally speaking, there are two stages of sleep that you go through every night: non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

Non-REM sleep is basically the take-off and landing of your flight to dreamland, while REM sleep is what we consider deep sleep. However, instead of a single flight, the trip consists of 4-5 cycles with each cycle lasting about 90-110 minutes.

Research has shown that elderly people spend more time in the lighter sleeping stages. In addition to that, the time spent in REM sleep is reduced as well, while your body continues to aim for the 4-5 cycles.

The reason why you may find yourself sleeping lighter as you get older is because your body produces lower levels of growth hormones.

When you produce fewer growth hormones, you also produce less melatonin – which is the main sleep hormone our body produces for us to get a good sleep.

All of the above lead to the fact that elderly people have trouble staying asleep. Many experience fragmented sleep or simply find it impossible to fall back to sleep.

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Circadian rhythm in the elderly

Many elderly people have the tendency to fall asleep or wake up earlier than they used to. This is caused by a change in the circadian rhythm, otherwise known as your internal clock.

Your circadian rhythm controls your energy levels and tells you when to sleep and wake up. As you age, this shifts forward, making you want to go to sleep earlier.

While you should still be able to get your 7-9 hours of sleep, you do so a few hours earlier. Many find this extremely annoying to wake up at 5am every morning instead of say 7am. However, it always wise to listen to your body and just adapt along with it. Going against it too harshly may lead to sleep problems, such as sleep deprivation, excessive sleepiness, and so on.

If you are adamant on going back to your earlier rhythm, consider taking naps during the day. This will help get back some of the sleep that you lost. However, don’t take naps too close to bed time. That will, on the other hand, cause more harm than good.

Sleep medication for the elderly

Right off the bat, we would like to urge you to consult with a doctor before taking any sleep medication. The risks increase drastically as you age.

In addition, many elderly people are already on some medications which (1) can affect or even disrupt sleep and (2) conflict with other sleep medications.

Medications, such as antidepressants, often have sleep-related side effects.

Diuretics are also often taken by people who have high blood pressure or glaucoma. These meds often make you wake up frequently to go the toilet during the night.

Here are a few other types of medication that may have a negative effect on your sleep:


Prescribed for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Antihypertensive drugs

Used to treat high blood pressure.

Corticosteroids (Prednisone)

Used to treat conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

H2 Blockers (Zantac, Tagamet)

Used to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or peptic ulcers


Medication used to treat Parkinson’s disease


Drugs used in extreme situations, such as an asthma attack or extremely low blood pressure

Sleep Medication for the Elderly

Medical conditions of the elderly

Unfortunately, many elderly people may already have an underlying medical condition that causes sleep problems.

Neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s are very often found to be the culprits. Acute medical conditions are also known to have sleep disrupting effects, such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, or prostatic hypertrophy.

Generally speaking, any medical condition that comes with pain and discomfort may make it harder for you to fall or stay asleep. The same applies to conditions that affect the bladder, which will force you to go to the bathroom more often during the night.

Finally, depression, anxiety and dementia have also been strongly linked to sleep problems.

Sleep disorders in the elderly

Primary sleep disorders are often diagnosed through your medical history, a physical test or a polysomnogram.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common sleep disorders in the elderly:

Sleep Apnea

The most prominent sleep disorder that comes with age is sleep apnea. It is a condition which causes brief breaks in your breathing as you sleep.

These breaks may cause you to wake up frequently during the night. In turn, they may also become the cause of insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness.

In addition, snoring is also one of the most common signs of this disorder. To treat sleep apnea, many use weightless mouthpieces or breathing devices, such as a CPAP. In very severe cases, surgery is required to fully fix this issue.

Restless Leg Syndrome

This condition causes discomfort in the legs and the urge to walk.

It is often described as an unpleasant, tingling and creepy feeling.

This feeling gets worse during the night, making it hard to fall and stay asleep. It has also been linked to excessive daytime sleepiness.

One of the best things to do against restless leg syndrome is regular exercise. Alternatively, you can also soak your legs and feet in a warm bath.

In severe cases, you may have to take some medicine, such as dopaminergic agents or benzodiazepines. Even opiates are used to treat restless leg syndrome.

As always, we highly recommend you to see a doctor before taking any form of medication. In addition, it is always best to try the natural remedies first like exercise or a warm foot bath.

After all, exercise is good for so many things – including increasing your sleep quality.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder

This sleep disorder is also a fairly common one. It can come on its own, but it is often combined with restless leg syndrome.

Periodic limb movement disorder causes muscle contractions, making your arms and legs twitch or even kick and punch.

More often than not, dopaminergic agents are used to treat this sleep disorder.

They reduce the number of occurrences during the night, and therefore increase the quality of your sleep.

REM-Behavior Disorder

While this sleep disorder is very rare, it most commonly affects elderly people.

As you sleep, your body usually doesn’t allow you to move as you are in your dreams. However, this disease prevents that from happening. Instead, you may find yourself kicking, walking, running or falling.

This can cause many injuries, and is especially dangerous for elderly people with pre-existing conditions.

The condition is usually treated with bedtime doses of benzodiazepine, such as clonazepam. If you suspect that you might be suffering from REM-behavior disorder, please contact a medical professional in your area.

Also do not self-medicate in any way as your other medications, age and pre-existing conditions may otherwise lead to possible health hazards.

The Best Sleep Environment for the Elderly

Sleeping all the time

Many people think that elderly people sleep all the time. However, we have now learnt that that isn’t always true.

The main issue between elderly people and sleep is usually that they find it difficult staying asleep. That is because they experience lighter sleep than younger people do.

Low quality sleep in the elderly make them dose off frequently or make them feel the need for more frequent naps. They essentially need to make up for their lost sleep caused by their aging.

Also keep in mind that many types of medicine the elderly take are often linked to sleepiness.

Treating Sleep Problems in The Elderly – Some Tips & Tricks


• A regular sleep/wake schedule

• Exercise early in the day or no later than 4 hours before bed

• A sleep environment that is dark, quiet, safe and comfortable

• Activities that encourage relaxation before bed, such as a warm bath, a shower, or calming music.


• Caffeine, other stimulants and alcohol no later than 3 hours before bedtime

• Heavy meals, spicy food, and excessive amounts of liquid before bedtime (a light snack or warm milk is alright)

• Taking naps close to bedtime

• Activities in bed such as work, reading or watching television

What about sleeping pills for the elderly?

Many also choose to take sleeping pills against their sleep disorders. While this may not have been problematic in the past, it does come with issues as you get older.

First of all, only take prescribed sleep aids after visiting a medical professional. There are too many dangers otherwise involved if you go rogue on this one.

Also, sleeping pills which are available in pharmacies are usually only for temporary sleep issues. Finally, keep in mind that while sleeping pills may be a physical necessity for the time being, they can also quickly become an addiction.

Elderly people tend to absorb medicine much quicker than younger people. In addition, they may also last longer in their bodies.

In turn, this may cause an interaction with other medications that are being taken.

The Right Sleep Environment

As we get older, we tend to spend more and more time in bed. Even during our younger days we would spend a third of our day in bed.

Having the right sleep environment and products around you is important throughout your entire life.

That is why Vita Talalay wants to provide the healthiest sleep experience possible with our latex mattresses, latex mattress toppers and latex pillows.

If you haven’t tried one yet, we highly recommend you to do so in one of our many retailers around the world.

To do so, simply click here.

Discover the benefits of Vita Talalay's natural latex and how it can help you get the rest that your body needs... Read More

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