Worried senior woman in bed at night suffering from insomnia. Old woman lying in bed with open eyes. Mature woman unable to sleep at home.


There’s a common misconception about the amount of time seniors should sleep each night. Many mistakenly believe their sleep needs diminish with each passing year. And while many seniors don’t sleep as much, it’s not from a lack of need.

The American Academy of Family Physicians explains that seniors experience changes in their sleep cycle. These include waking up earlier and having trouble falling back to sleep if disturbed. Common medical conditions that affect sleep include:

  • Sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is when a person stops breathing in their sleep. It can happen dozens to hundreds of times each night. Telltale signs of this condition are loud snoring and chronic fatigue. Sleep apnea can be fatal and exacerbate other health conditions, especially for seniors. For this reason, it should be discussed with a health care provider as soon as it is suspected.
  • Periodic limb movement. Periodic limb movement disorder is a neurological condition that causes arm and leg movement during sleep. Though the exact causes are unknown, it may be linked to underlying disorders such as diabetes, multiple system atrophy, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and anemia. Periodic limb movement disorder is not harmful on its own but can significantly affect sleep quality. Medical News Today notes that daytime sleepiness is one complication that can further progress into a shortened attention span and depression.
  • Restless leg syndrome. Restless leg syndrome is typified by a crawling, creeping, or pins and needles feeling in the lower extremities while at rest. It gets worse in the evening and, like periodic limb movement disorder, can make it difficult to sleep. There are avenues for prevention, though.

Schedule an appointment with your doctor to be tested for sleep disorders. Health.com notes that Medicare covers certain types of sleep tests, although not every plan offers these.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Getting enough sleep is vital for seniors as it affects overall health. If sleep disorders such as those listed above have been ruled out, a few lifestyle changes can improve sleep quality. Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN, a sports nutritionist and regular Healthline contributor, offers these tips:

  • Increase light exposure throughout the day
  • Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.
  • Avoid naps longer than 30 minutes
  • Implement a regular bedtime schedule
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks – this is especially important for seniors with sleep apnea
  • Implement an exercise regimen, but avoid exercising in the hours leading up to bedtime

Environmental Factors

In addition to behavioral changes, seniors should also look at their environment for clues when sleep becomes elusive. Overheating and using the wrong types of pillow can result in wakeful nights. A few ways to encourage restful slumber are:

  • Pick the right mattress – If you have lower back pain, note that you will need a specific kind of mattress to suit your sleeping style. A firm mattress will provide back and stomach sleepers with the right amount of support, while side sleepers will benefit most from a medium or medium-firm mattress to relieve pressure in their shoulders
  • Set the room temperature to approximately 68°
  • Add room-darkening curtains or shades
  • Eliminate clutter and close the closet door
  • Remove the television and avoid bringing devices to the bedroom

Mental Health

Seniors are already vulnerable to mental health concerns, including depression and Alzheimer’s. Anxiety, stress, and other factors that affect mental health can also affect a person’s sleep quality. There is a reciprocal relationship between mental health and sleep, and the less sleep a person receives, the more likely they are to suffer with issues that involve emotional processing. Seniors who are under a great deal of stress, suffer from loneliness or feel anxious should discuss these concerns with their primary health care provider.

Getting a good night’s sleep is important for people of all ages. Seniors should pay careful attention to the amount of rest they receive, as sleep deprivation will only serve to amplify issues relating to cognitive impairment and mental health.

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