Senior Citizens and Insomnia

Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders. In addition to sleepless nights, insomnia also means intermittent wakefulness and early morning awakening. Although not medically regarded as a disease, insomnia can be very aggravating to the person suffering from it. If left untreated, insomnia can lead to sleep deprivation which wrecks havoc on otherwise healthy adult lives.

Although insomnia affects people of both sexes and all age groups, it is most common in women and senior citizens. According to the International Longevity Center, insomnia affects around one-third of senior adults and up to two-thirds of individuals over the age of fifty have one type of sleep problem or another (which is approximately 35 to 37 million senior citizens across the United States). The average senior citizen needs around 6 ½ to 7 ½ hours of sleep per night for proper functioning during the daytime.

Types of Insomnia

Long-term insomnia means that both the body and brain are not getting a enough rest which can usher in a host of other problems for the individual. Insomnia can either be short-term (transient) or long-term (chronic).

Transient insomnia is common and temporary and generally is related to a stressful current event such as an impending divorce, a death in the family, a move, a vacation, anticipation about the arrival of a grandchild, etc. Transient insomnia is not a huge concern and generally gives way to only a few nights of tossing and turning.

However when insomnia takes place over an extended period of time (such as many weeks) and is characterized by a number of nights grouped together where sleep is difficult then it has developed into a more serious form of insomnia- chronic insomnia.

Causes of Insomnia

Many things can cause insomnia in senior citizens. Some of these contributing factors include:

  • Anxiety
  • Too much stress
  • Illness
  • Depression
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Heavy smoking
  • Physical discomfort or pain
  • Napping too often during daytime hours
  • Poor sleeping environment
  • Medical conditions
  • Retiring too early in the evening
  • Too much time spent in bed
  • Jet lag

It is believed that anxiety, depression, grief or stress are the cause of over half of most insomnia sufferers problems while the most common health problems include arthritis, asthma, breathing related problems, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, kidney disease and hypoglycemia. Sleep apnea can also be a cause of insomnia in seniors as can restless legs syndrome.

When a person feels anxious or stressed they tend to lie awake at night and wrestle with their problems and possible solutions. This can become a habit that can very easily lead to chronic insomnia.

Depression can be a contributing factor in insomnia but it also can result in a person sleeping too much in order to not have to cope with the underlying cause of their depression or simply as an escape from it. Depression can bring on insomnia but the reverse can also be the case.

Sometimes insomnia can be caused by lifestyle choices such as bad eating habits and/or eating a large meal too close to bedtime. Eating a large meal of greasy or spicy foods can exacerbate the problem even more. Keep in mind that alcohol, caffeine and nicotine are all drugs- alcohol is a depressant that interrupts normal sleep patterns while caffeine and nicotine are stimulants.

Many people are not aware of the fact that a lack of exercise can also contribute to insomnia. Exercising on a regular basis helps to improve the quality of a persons sleep and serves to relieve the daily stresses of life. Moderate exercise such as walking, twenty to thirty minutes a day, three to four times a week is all that is required to help improve ones quality of sleep.

A survey done by the National Sleep Foundation in 2003 found that of the 1506 respondents to the study, fifty-two percent of seniors reported improved sleep patterns when they exercised three or more times a week.

Three other common causes of insomnia that are unique to senior citizens include pain in various parts of the body, excess weight and what is known as ambulatory restrictions (things such as a problem with walking, sitting and climbing or descending stairs).

It is important to keep in mind that insomnia in and of itself is not a disease but is most often symptomatic of a more serious disorder or disease. Getting a good nights sleep contributes to a senior adults overall physical and mental health and well-being. Being active throughout the day, eating properly and exercising can go a long way in helping insure that sleep will come easily at night.