As people get older, there are a number of changes that may occur in their sleep schedule. There are a number of sleep problems that become common among elderly adults. Often, elderly people have trouble falling asleep or have poor sleep schedules.
This is often caused by waking up in the middle of the night due to decreased bladder control or trouble falling asleep, to begin with, due to chronic pain or some other type of discomfort.
However, on the other side of things, another condition that may arise is sleeping too much. There are many elderly people who engage in daytime sleeping in addition to a full night’s sleep. This can be worrisome for both the elderly person sleeping so much and an elderly person’s family members or caregivers.
This is why it is so important to find the underlying causes that might make an elderly person sleep so much. Usually sleeping too much is a sign of a different problem, and it is important to figure out what that problem is. Aging has a number of effects on a person’s health, and sleep is one of the main factors that determine a person’s health.
In this article, we briefly go into some of the common effects aging has on elderly people’s sleep habits. Then we will delve deeper into why an elderly person might be sleeping so much. We end the article with some suggestions for optimizing the sleep schedule of the elderly.
How Does Aging Affect Sleep?
Aging affects everyone in a different way. There are many people that suffer no severe sleep disturbances as they age, while there are other people whose sleep quality is deeply affected. Despite people being affected differently, experts have found some common sleep changes that aging may have on people. Below, we list some of the most common effects of aging on sleep.
What is Excessive Sleep in the Elderly?
It can be difficult to know what is normal when it comes to sleep and what is a sign that there’s a bigger issue at play. No matter your age, good sleep is one of the most important aspects of overall health.
It allows our bodies to heal and repair, curbs inflammation, wards off depression, improves our ability to think clearly and reason, improves memory, lowers our risk of obesity, and much more. When we don’t get enough sleep, we are at a higher risk for many physical and emotional illnesses, as well as poor judgment, falls, and other types of accidents.
Some sleep experts suggest that seniors actually need less sleep than other age groups. Most people need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep whereas many seniors can get away with 7.5 hours. Other experts believe that seniors need just as much sleep as the rest of the population.
One way to gauge excessive sleep is to not be alarmed if an elderly person is sleeping as much as is recommended for the average adult population but take notice if they are sleeping more than the average population. Another sign of excessive sleep is if an elderly person is sleeping at strange times during the day.
Since a lot of elderly people actually suffer from sleeping problems, causing them to have poorer sleep quality and numerous impediments to a full night’s rest, it can be perfectly normal for an elderly person to take a sort of regenerating nap during the day. These kinds of sleeping habits can go too far, however.
If they are sleeping for large portions of the day in addition to sleeping at night, this can be cause for concern. Below, we go over some of the common reasons that elderly people may be dealing with excessive sleeping problems.
Reasons for Excessive Sleep in the Elderly
1. Boredom and Lack of Engagement
As people age, they may suffer from chronic health conditions and age-related changes that affect their ability to do the things they enjoy. When options for outings, activities and entertainment are limited, it can deal a serious blow to an elder’s quality of life.
They aren’t working anymore, they may struggle with reading or puzzles because of poor eyesight, and watching TV eventually gets old. In these cases, elders may not be clinically depressed or even all that tired. Instead, their fatigue stems from the fact that they are incredibly bored. With no schedule to keep and not much to look forward to in their lives, they slide into the habit of napping throughout most of the day.
In other words, an elderly person might suffer from daytime sleepiness simply because there is nothing else to do. If you are a loved one or a caregiver, one of the first steps you should take if you notice that your elderly loved one or person in your care is sleeping to much is to make sure that they are able to find engagement in various activities and that they do not deal with excessive boredom.
So much entertainment is geared towards younger generations, and even something like going out with friends for coffee or tea may not be as easily available for elderly people since movement can be difficult and it can be difficult to maintain friendships in later years.
This is especially the case if your elderly loved one has many friends who have passed away, as does, unfortunately, commonly happen. This only shows that it is imperative to organize activities to keep elderly people engaged.
Ask the elderly person in your care what it is that interests them. If they like books, either make sure they have access to books that they can read by themselves, or, if they have trouble with eyesight, then try and find someone who can read to them.
Audiobooks are another great choice. Of course, reading is just one of an innumerable amount of possible interests, so it is important to gear these activities to things that actually interest the elderly person, rather than to impose what some might say an elderly person should be interested in.
If you make sure that the elderly person in your care is not so bored and is more engaged with life, there is a high chance that they will start to change their sleep habits and stop excessively sleeping.
2. Medication Problems
Prescribing for older patients presents unique challenges. Premarketing drug trials often exclude older adults, and approved doses may not be appropriate for older adults . Many medications need to be used with special caution because of age-related changes in pharmacokinetics (ie, absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion) and pharmacodynamics (the physiologic effects of the drug).
A survey in the United States of a representative sampling of 2206 community-dwelling adults (aged 62 through 85 years) was conducted by in-home interviews and use of medication logs between 2010 and 2011. At least one prescription medication was used by 87 percent. Five or more prescription medications were used by 36 percent, and 38 percent used over-the-counter medications.
These numbers just pertain to prescription drugs. Elderly people also take many more supplements and herbal remedies than the general population of adults.Use of herbal or dietary supplements (eg, ginseng, ginkgo biloba extract, and glucosamine) by older adults has been increasing, from 14 percent in 1998 to 63 percent in 2010.
In one study of over 3000 ambulatory adults ages 75 years or older, almost three-quarters used at least one prescription drug and one dietary supplement . Often, clinicians do not question patients about use of herbal medicines, and patients do not routinely volunteer this information.
In one United States survey, three-quarters of respondents aged 18 years and older reported that they did not inform their clinician that they were using unconventional medications. Unfortunately, despite easy access to herbal remedies, herbal medicines may interact with prescribed drug therapies and lead to adverse events.
With the potential for so many prescription drugs and herbal remedies being used by elderly adults, there is a high risk that an elderly person’s medications could be a cause of excessive sleep. All medications have side effects, so it should come as no surprise that taking multiple drugs can produce interactions that magnify these effects.
In addition, older individuals metabolize medications differently than their younger counterparts, meaning they are even more susceptible to adverse effects like drowsiness and dizziness.
Prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications for conditions like anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, nausea, and allergies can all cause excessive sleepiness. Atypical (second generation) antipsychotics are notoriously hard on most elderly patients as well, especially those with dementia.
If your loved one is using one or more of these drugs, discuss the side effects and alternative treatment options with their physician. You may even find that there are some medications in their regimen that could be reduced to smaller dosages or discontinued completely. Sometimes simply altering the timing of a senior’s doses can improve their alertness during the day.
3. Depression and Low Energy
Although depression is not necessarily a normal part of aging, it can be mental health problems can be a common symptom as elderly people lose interest in life and often lose dear friends.
Given the wide array of factors that can lead to excessive sleep and daytime napping, it is often very difficult to pinpoint whether the cause is from a depressive disorder or some other factor.
Often other detrimental factors, such as chronic pain or lack of engagement can lead to depression, so a diagnosis of depression simply is not enough. However, it can be a good first step toward proper care.
If an elderly person in your care is sleeping excessively, it is prudent to discuss with their physician about whether they are dealing with depression. From there, better treatment, such as antidepressants, and (hopefully a recovery) may follow.
4. Advancing Dementia
Seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia often experience a wide array of sleep problems and changing sleep patterns, such as excessive daytime sleepiness, especially in the latter stages of the disease.
As the brain deteriorates, issues arise with circadian rhythms and temporal awareness, making it difficult for dementia patients to sleep through the night and keep a normal schedule. In some cases, sleeping during the day is the only way that patients can make up for the shuteye they lose at night.
Sleep deprivation can exacerbate symptoms of dementia like sundowning and agitation, and the resulting odd schedules can be frustrating for caregivers. Unfortunately, there aren’t many foolproof methods for helping a dementia patient sleep through the night and stay awake during the day, and neither over-the-counter nor prescription sleeping pills are typically advisable.
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends planning engaging activities during the daytime, scheduling brief naps as needed during the day and sticking to a set sleep schedule as the best nonpharmaceutical methods for encouraging good sleep habits.
A solid routine can be very effective in helping a loved one stay oriented and managing dementia behaviors. If an elderly person is suffering from advancing dementia, it may be a good idea to check them into a nursing home or set up home care for proper treatment.
5. Poor Sleep Hygiene
What might be perceived as excessive sleep may very well simply be a reflection of poor sleep hygiene at night. From chronic pain to restless leg syndrome, there are many potential contributing factors that may prevent an elderly person from getting a good night’s sleep or to fall into rem and deep sleep.
If an elderly person has trouble sleeping at night, their body might try to make up for it in the day. This might seem like the elderly person is getting an amount of sleep that is too much but, in fact, it could be that this sleep is necessary and only appears that they are sleeping too much.
This is why it is good to practice good sleep hygiene, and we have a few recommendations on how elderly people can get combat sleep disorders and get better sleep at night so that they don’t spend their days trying to catch up.
Sleep Hygiene Tips
Older people who exercise regularly fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and report better quality of sleep. Exercise is one of the best things older people can do for their health. The National Institute of Aging offers helpful tips for exercising safely as an older person.
2. Reduce bedroom distractions:
Televisions, cellphones, and bright lights can make it more challenging to fall asleep. Keep the television in another room and try not to fall asleep with it turned on.
3. Avoid substances that discourage sleep:
Substances like alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and even large meals late in the day can make sleep more challenging. Try quitting smoking, reducing caffeine intake, and eating dinner at least four hours before bedtime.
4. Keep a regular sleep schedule:
Remember that aging makes it more difficult to recover from lost sleep. Avoid sudden changes in sleep schedules. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day and being careful about napping too long.
5. Develop a bedtime routine:
Find activities that help you relax before bed. Many older people enjoy a bath, reading, or finding some quiet time before getting into bed.
Moving Towards a Better Sleep Schedule
As we have shown in this article, there are a number of possible factors that may contribute to an elderly person sleeping excessively. Sleeping excessively is more likely than not an indication of some other health problem or other medical conditions that need to be fixed.
In order to improve the quality of life of an elderly person suffering from excessive sleep, it is important to contact a physician and get to the bottom of what’s going on, so the elderly person in your care can get healthy sleep consistent with normal aging nighttime sleep.