Since he retired, Edward dreads going to bed at
night. He’s afraid that when he turns off his light he will just
lie there with his eyes open and his mind racing. “How can I
break this cycle?” he asks. “I’m so tired—I
need to get some sleep.”
Just like Edward, you want a good night’s
rest. Getting enough sleep helps you stay healthy and alert. But many
older people don’t sleep well. If you’re always sleepy, it may be time
to see a doctor. You shouldn’t wake up every day feeling tired.
Sleep and Aging
Older adults need about the same amount
of sleep as young adults—between 7-9 hours each night. But older people
tend to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier than they did when they
were younger. And they may nap more during the day. If you sleep too
much during the day, it may be hard to fall asleep at night. Also,
feeling sick or being in pain can make it hard to sleep. If you don’t
get a good night’s sleep, the next day you may be:
There are two kinds of sleep—REM (rapid
eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. We dream mostly during REM sleep,
and have the deepest sleep during non-REM sleep. As people get older,
they spend less time in deep sleep, which may be why older people are
often light sleepers.
Insomnia is the most common sleep problem
in adults age 60 and older. People with insomnia have trouble falling
and staying asleep. Insomnia can last for days, months or even years. If
you’re having trouble sleeping, you may:
take a long time to fall asleep,
wake up many times in the night,
wake up early and be unable to get
back to sleep,
wake up tired.
There are many causes of insomnia. Some
of them you can control, but others you can’t. Insomnia may be a sign of
other problems. If you are excited about a new activity or worrying over
your bills, you may have trouble sleeping.
Sometimes insomnia is a side effect of a
medication or an illness. Often, being unable to sleep becomes a habit.
Some people worry about not sleeping even before they get into bed.
Worrying doesn’t help and it may make insomnia worse.
Older adults who have trouble sleeping
may have memory problems, be depressed, have more nighttime falls, use
more over-the-counter sleep aids, or feel very sleepy during the day.
Using prescription medicines for a short time may help. But remember,
these medicines aren’t a cure for insomnia. You need to develop habits
that will help you get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep apnea is another serious sleeping
disorder. A person with sleep apnea pauses in his or her breathing while
sleeping. These pauses may happen many times during the night. Waking up
over and over each night makes you feel very tired the next day.
You may not even know you have sleep
apnea. But your loud snoring and gasping for air can keep other people
awake. Feeling sleepy during the day and being told you are snoring
loudly at night are signs that you may have sleep apnea.
If you think you have sleep apnea, see a
doctor who knows about sleep problems. Treatment may include learning to
sleep in a way that keeps your airways open. Sometimes a medical device
called Continuous Positive Air Pressure (CPAP), a dental device, or
surgery can help. If not treated, sleep apnea can lead to other problems
such as high blood pressure, stroke, or memory loss.
Restless legs syndrome and periodic limb
movement disorder are common in older adults. Some people have both
problems. These movement disorders can rob you of needed sleep. People
with restless legs syndrome, or RLS, feel tingling, crawling, or pins
and needles in one or both legs. It’s worse at night. Moving the legs
brings some relief, at least for a short time. RLS tends to run in
families. See your doctor for more information about medicines to treat
Periodic limb movement disorder, or PLMD,
causes people to jerk and kick their legs every 20–40 seconds during
sleep. Some people have hundreds of these movements each night, which
may result in loss of sleep and feeling tired and sleepy the next day.
Medication, warm baths, exercise, and learning to relax can help.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Sleep—A Special Problem
Alzheimer’s disease often changes a
person’s sleeping habits. For example, some people with Alzheimer’s
disease sleep too much; others don’t sleep enough. Some people wake up
many times during the night; others wander or yell at night. The person
with Alzheimer’s disease isn’t the only one who loses sleep. Caregivers
may have sleepless nights, leaving them tired and out of sorts.
If you’re caring for someone with
Alzheimer’s disease, there are steps you can take to protect his or her
nighttime safety. Try the following:
Put a gate across the stairs.
Make sure the floor is clear of
Lock up any medicines.
Put grab bars in the bathroom.
Put a portable toilet in the bedroom.
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Being older doesn’t mean you have to feel
tired all the time. There are many things you can do to help you get a
good night’s sleep. Here are some ideas.
Follow a regular schedule. Go to
sleep and get up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
Napping in the late afternoon or evening may keep you awake at
Develop a bedtime routine. About
30-45 minutes before bedtime each night, do the same things so your
body will know that it’s time to sleep. Some people watch television,
read a book, listen to soothing music, or soak in a warm bath.
Your bedroom should be dark, not too
hot or too cold, and as quiet as possible.
Be sure you have a comfortable
mattress, a pillow you like, and enough blankets for the season.
Exercise at regular times each day
but not within 3 hours of your bedtime.
Make an effort to get outside in the
sunlight each day.
Be careful about when and how much
you eat. Large meals close to bedtime may keep you awake, but a
light snack in the evening can help you get a good night’s sleep.
Stay away from caffeine late in the
day. Caffeine (found in coffee, tea, cola, and hot chocolate) is a
stimulant that can keep you awake.
Drink less liquid in the evening.
Waking up to go to the bathroom and turning on a bright light breaks
up your sleep.
Remember that alcohol won’t help you
sleep. Even small amounts make it harder to stay asleep.
Use your bedroom only for sleeping.
After turning off the light give yourself about 15 minutes to fall
asleep. If you’re still awake and not drowsy, get out of bed. When
you feel sleepy, go back to bed.
Try to set up a safe and restful place to
sleep. Make sure there are smoke alarms on each floor and lock up the
house before going to bed. Other ideas for a safe night’s sleep are:
Keep a telephone with emergency phone
numbers by your bed.
Have a good lamp that turns on easily
Put a glass of water next to the bed.
Use nightlights in the bathroom and
Don’t smoke, especially in bed.
Remove area rugs so you won’t trip if
you get out of bed in the middle of the night.
Don’t fall asleep with a heating pad
on; it may burn.
There are some tricks to help you fall
asleep. You don’t really have to count sheep—just try counting slowly to
100. Some people find that playing mental games makes them sleepy—tell
yourself it’s 5 minutes before you have to get up and you’re just trying
to get a few extra winks. Other people find that relaxing their body
puts them to sleep. You might start with your toes, and tell yourself
that your toes are relaxed and sleepy. Work your way up the rest of the
body saying the same words. You may drift off to sleep before getting to
the top of your head.
If you feel tired and unable to do the
things you usually do for more than 2-3 weeks, see a doctor. Sleep
problems can cause you to feel bad, but there are changes you can make
to get a better night’s sleep.
For More Information
Here are some helpful Federal and
National Heart, Lung, and BloodInstitute
Health Information Center
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
National Institute on
Neurological Disorders and Stroke
P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
American Insomnia Association
One Westbrook Corporate Center
Westchester, IL 60154
American Sleep Apnea Association
1424 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
Better Sleep Council
501 Wythe Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-1917
National Sleep Foundation
1522 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005-1253
Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation
1610 14th Street NW
Rochester, MN 55901
For more information about health and aging, contact:
National Institute on Aging
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
To order publications (in English or
Spanish) or sign up for regular email alerts, visit
Visit NIHSeniorHealth.gov (www.nihseniorhealth.gov),
a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the
National Library of Medicine. This website has health information for
older adults. There are also special features that make it simple to
use. For example, you can click on a button to have the text read out
loud or to make the type larger.
National Institute on Aging
U. S. Department of Health and Human Services
Public Health Service
National Institutes of Health
Reprinted April 2007
Web page last updated:
June 25, 2007