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Sleep disorders in the elderly


Symptoms that may occur:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty telling the difference between night and day
  • Early morning awakening
  • Waking up often during the night

Relieving chronic pain and controlling medical conditions such as frequent urination may improve sleep in some people. Treating depression can also improve sleep.

Sleeping in a quiet room that is not too hot or too cold and having a relaxing bedtime routine may help improve symptoms. Other ways to promote sleep include the following healthy lifestyle tips:

  • Avoid large meals shortly before bedtime.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine after mid-afternoon.
  • Get regular exercise early in the day.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • DO NOT take naps.
  • Use the bed only for sleep or sexual activity.

If you cannot fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet activity such as reading or listening to music.

Avoid using sleeping pills to help you sleep, if possible. They can lead to dependence and can make sleep problems worse over time if you don't use them correctly. Your health care provider should assess your risks of daytime sleepiness, mental (cognitive) side effects, and falls before you begin taking sleep medications.

  • If you think you need sleeping pills, talk with your doctor about which pills are safe for you when taken properly. Certain sleeping pills should not be taken on a long-term basis.
  • DO NOT drink alcohol at any time when you are using sleeping pills. Alcohol can make the side effects of all sleeping pills worse.

WARNING: The FDA has asked manufacturers of certain sleep medicines to put stronger warning labels on their products so that consumers are more aware of the potential risks. Possible risks while taking such medicines include severe allergic reactions and dangerous sleep-related behaviors, including sleep-driving. Ask your doctor about these risks.

Outlook (Prognosis):

For most people, sleep improves with treatment. However, others may continue to have sleep disruptions.

Possible Complications:

Possible complications are:

  • Alcohol use
  • Drug abuse
When to Contact a Medical Professional:

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if a lack of sleep or too much sleep is interfering with daily living.


Getting regular exercise and avoiding as many causes of sleep disruption as possible and adequate exposure to natural light may help control sleep problems.


Ancoli-Israel S, Shochat T. Insomnia in older adults.  In: Kryger MH, Roth T, Dement WC, eds. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 135.

Juergens TM, Barczi SR. Sleep. In: Duthie EH, Katz PR, Malone ML, eds. Practice of Geriatrics. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 22.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How Much Sleep is Enough? Available at: Updated February 22, 2012. Accessed October 22, 2014.

Review Date: 10/27/2014
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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