Sleep disturbances or insomnia can be very bothersome at any age, but they become frequent occurrences once a person enters his or her senior years. In fact, women are more likely to experience insomnia more than their male counterparts. Many of the people over 65 years of age find no difficulty in falling asleep but end up waking up after a few hours in the wee hours of the night. This makes it very difficult for the elderly to get adequate rest and find respite from chronic pain and other issues.
Insomnia, the most common sleep disorder, is a subjective report of insufficient or nonrestorative sleep despite adequate opportunity to sleep — Researchers at Saint Louis University School of Medicine
What are common causes of insomnia in the elderly?
Once a person enters his or her senior years, his health and lifestyle undergo gradual but significant changes, such as retirement, divorce, the death of a spouse or other loved ones, the empty nest syndrome, and many others. All these physical, psychological, social, and situational changes create adjustment problems, and it takes time for a senior citizen’s body and circadian rhythms and cycles to get used to these changes.
Besides these obvious physical changes, age-related changes like menopause, hormonal changes, a decrease in brain activity, illnesses, and side effects of certain medications can all contribute to insomnia. Illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, arthritic pain, gallstones, cancer and chemotherapy, and several other health issues also lead to chronic sleep disturbances.
Sleep Disturbances and the Physical and Emotional Issues it Creates
Sleep disturbances create mental and physical exhaustion and a decline in mental and physical alertness and cognitive functions. If left untreated for a long time, it can lead to far more serious problems such as the following:
- Sleep deprivation creates metal fogginess and can lead to issues like forgetting to switch off the stove or heater, taking medication on time, locking oneself out or in, leaving doors and windows open, etc.
- Sleep disturbances cause exhaustion and a lack of balance and coordination which consequently increases the risk of falls.
- Sleep deprivation can lower cognitive functions can lead to accidents while driving or operating other kinds of machinery or during cooking.
- Chronic insomnia can lead to anxiety disorders and depression and other mental illnesses.
- Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to dementia and paranoia.
- A sleep-deprived person is more likely to suffer from headaches, restless leg syndrome, depression, a greater sensitivity to pain, gradual memory loss, and even cardiovascular disease, diabetes, a weakened immune system, among many other problems.
How to Treat Insomnia in Seniors
Although insomnia is a common problem in the later phase of one’s life, it shouldn’t be undermined or left unaddressed. The conventional mode of treatment for insomnia is getting prescribed sleep medications such as zolpidem, barbiturates, and benzodiazepine. However, it is a short-term mode of treatment, and in the case of elderly, it can cause drowsiness, and a consequence increases the risk of falls and other accidents. As opposed to pharmacological interventions, there are studies that have supported alternative treatment methods like Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
One such study reports: “Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most widely used psychological intervention for insomnia.” This behavioral therapy comprises teaching a senior citizen a sleep hygiene routine and developing good sleeping habits like avoiding naps during the day, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake in the evening, avoiding stimulatory activities around bedtime, getting conditions like depression, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome treated, practicing meditation and other relaxation therapies, etc.
Insomnia or changes in the sleep patterns and quality are some of the issues that are experienced with aging. If they are left unaddressed, they can negatively impact the emotional and physical health of a senior citizen. However, proper therapeutic remedies, adequate support, and compassion can help the elderly manage this issue.
- Kamel, Nabil S., and Julie K. Gammack. “Insomnia in the elderly: cause, approach, and treatment.”The American journal of medicine 119, no. 6 (2006): 463-469. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002934305010569
- Omvik, Siri, Stňle Pallesen, Odd E. Havik, Gerd Kvale, and Inger Hilde Nordhus. “Cognitive behavioral therapy vs zopiclone for treatment of chronic primary insomnia in older adults: a randomized controlled trial.”Jama 295, no. 24 (2006): 2851-2858. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/203083