Oct 1, 2005 Table of Contents

Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Sleep Changes in Older Adults

Am Fam Physician. 2005 Oct 1;72(7):1315-1316.

How much sleep do older adults need?

Most adults need about eight hours of sleep to feel fully alert when they’re awake. This usually is true for people 65 years or older. But as you get older, you might have more trouble sleeping. Many things can get in the way of sleeping well or sleeping long enough to be fully rested.

What sleep changes are common in older adults?

Older adults might get sleepy earlier in the evening, or they may have trouble falling asleep when they go to bed. They might not stay asleep all night. They might wake up very early in the morning and not be able to go back to sleep. These problems can make older people very sleepy in the daytime.

What causes sleep problems?

Many things can cause sleep problems. By the time an adult is 65 years old, his or her routine asleep/awake cycle may not work as well as it used to. Some habits like smoking and having drinks with alcohol or caffeine can cause sleep problems. Sleep problems may be caused by being sick or by pain that keeps a person from sleeping. Medicines also can keep a person awake. People of all ages can have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea (say: AP-nee-uh), restless legs syndrome, or periodic limb movement disorder.

What is sleep apnea?

People with sleep apnea stop breathing for 10 to 30 seconds during sleep. Then they start breathing again with a gasp. This can happen hundreds of times in a night. Every time this happens, it makes the person wake up a little bit. People with sleep apnea usually snore very loudly. Sleep apnea can cause daytime sleepiness. It also can make high blood pressure and heart disease worse.

If you have sleep apnea and are overweight, it might help to lose weight. Sleeping on your side and not drinking alcohol or using sleep medicines also can help. Many people with sleep apnea need to wear a special breathing mask at night to keep their airways open. This is called “continuous positive airway pressure,” or CPAP for short. It can help you breathe normally during sleep. Surgery can help some people with sleep apnea.

What is restless legs syndrome?

This is a “creepy-crawly” feeling, mostly in the legs. It makes you want to move your legs or walk around. It may be worse in the evenings when your legs are at rest. It usually happens every night and may start after you get in bed. This feeling may keep you from falling asleep. Older adults are more likely to have this problem.

If you have restless legs syndrome, using hot or cold packs on your legs or taking a hot or cold bath might help. Some people find it helpful to do exercises or stretching to relax. You can try rubbing your legs, feet, and toes before going to bed. Certain medicines may help people who have restless legs syndrome. Your doctor will decide if using medicine is the right treatment for you.

What is periodic limb movement disorder?

A person with this disorder kicks one or both legs many times during sleep. Often the person doesn’t even know about the kicking unless a bed partner talks about it. It can get in the way of good sleep and cause daytime sleepiness. Some people with restless legs syndrome also have periodic limb movements during sleep.

What can I do to sleep better?

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.

  • Don’t take naps longer than about 20 minutes.

  • Don’t have drinks with caffeine in them after lunch.

  • Don’t drink alcohol in the evening. It might help you fall asleep, but it may make you wake up in the middle of the night.

  • Don’t lie in bed for a long time trying to go to sleep. If you can’t go to sleep within 30 minutes, get up and do something quiet for awhile, like reading or listening to soft music. Then try again to fall asleep in bed.

  • Ask your doctor if any of your medicines could be keeping you awake at night.

  • Talk to your doctor if pain or other health problems keep you awake.

  • Try to exercise every day. Exercise helps many older adults sleep better.


This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Copyright © 2005 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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