Sleep and Aging


Insomnia is the most common sleep complaint at any age. It affects almost half of adults 60 and older.


If you have insomnia, you may experience any one or any combination of the following symptoms.

  • taking a long time -- more than 30 to 45 minutes -- to fall asleep
  • waking up many times each night
  • waking up early and being unable to get back to sleep
  • waking up feeling tired, and unable to function well during the day

Short-term insomnia, lasting less than one month, may result from a medical or psychiatric condition. Or it may occur after a change in personal circumstances like losing a loved one, relocating, financial worries, or being hospitalized. If insomnia lasts longer than a month, it is considered chronic, even if the original cause has been resolved.

Many Possible Causes

Many factors can cause insomnia. However, the most common reason older adults wake up at night is to go to the bathroom. Prostate enlargement in men and continence problems in women are often the cause. Unfortunately, waking up to go to the bathroom at night also places older adults at greater risk for falling.

Health Issues and Insomnia

Disorders that cause pain or discomfort during the night such as heartburn, arthritis, menopause, and cancer also can cause you to lose sleep. Medical conditions such as heart failure and lung disease may make it more difficult to sleep through the night, too.

Neurologic conditions such as Parkinson's disease and dementia are often a source of sleep problems, as are psychiatric conditions, such as depression. Although depression and insomnia are often related, it is currently unclear whether one causes the other.

Personal Habits and Insomnia

Many older people also have habits that make it more difficult to get a good night's sleep. They may nap more frequently during the day or may not exercise as much. Spending less time outdoors can reduce their exposure to sunlight and upset their circadian biologic clock and their sleep cycle. Drinking more alcohol or caffeine can keep them from falling asleep or staying asleep.

Changes in Sleeping and Waking Patterns

Also, as people age, their sleeping and waking patterns tend to change. Older adults usually become sleepier earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning. If they don't adjust their bedtimes to these changes, they may have difficulty falling and staying asleep.

Medications and Insomnia

Many older adults take a variety of different medications that may negatively affect their sleep. Many medications have side effects that can cause sleepiness or affect daytime functioning.

Lifestyle Changes May Relieve Insomnia

These lifestyle changes often can help relieve short-term insomnia.

  • Avoid substances that make insomnia worse. These include caffeine, alcohol, and certain over-the-counter and prescription medicines.
  • Try to adopt bedtime habits that make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Some people watch the evening news, read a book, or soak in a warm bath.
  • Make your bedroom sleep-friendly. The room should be dark, well ventilated, and as quiet as possible.
  • Go to sleep around the same time each night and wake up around the same time each morning.

Counseling May Help

A type of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy can help relieve chronic (ongoing) insomnia. This therapy encourages good sleep habits and uses several methods such as relaxation and biofeedback to relieve sleep anxiety.

Medications May Help

Many prescription medicines are used to treat insomnia. They can help relieve insomnia and re-establish a regular sleep schedule. Some are meant for short-term use, while others are meant for longer use. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and side effects of insomnia medicines. For example, insomnia medicines can help you fall asleep, but you may feel groggy in the morning after taking them.

Some over-the-counter products claim to treat insomnia. Although these products may make you sleepy, talk to your doctor before taking them.

If your insomnia is the symptom or side effect of another problem, it's important to treat the underlying cause, if possible.