Symptoms and Signs of Sleep Disorders and Aging

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Medically Reviewed on 10/29/2021

Doctor's Notes on Sleep Disorders and Aging

Sleep disorders include problems falling or staying asleep, too much sleep, or abnormal behaviors with sleep. The two major disorders that increase with age are 

Sleep apnea is the interruption of breathing during sleep. Periodic limb movement is repetitive leg jerks in one or both legs during sleep; these are the signs and symptoms of the disorder. Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea are often noticed first by the person’s bed partner – they notice that the individual, while still asleep, has significant pauses between breaths; however, sometimes the patient will awake confused or short of breath. Other symptoms that may occur are snoring, daytime sleepiness, difficulty going to sleep and fatigue.

The exact causes of sleep apnea and periodic limb movement are unclear but the disorders may be manifestations of neurologic changes in the brain that increase over time as people age. More than half of individuals over 64 years old have some type of sleep disorder. Also, many medical problems have sleep disorders as symptoms; for example, depressiondementia, Alzheimer disease, heart failurechronic painemphysema. Medications like beta-blockers, antidepressants and others may interfere with normal sleep. Many aging patients have such progressive diseases and take multiple medications.

What are the treatments for a sleep disorder?

The treatments of sleep disorders are based on the type of sleeping problem you have. Your doctor will try to determine the type of problem by first asking some questions about your health, sleep symptoms and what, if anything, you have done to reduce the problem:

  • Health questions – for example,
  • Symptoms – examples of problems
    • Falling asleep, 
    • staying asleep, 
    • too much sleep, 
    • abnormal behaviors with or related to sleep.
  • Self help (examples; did your actions reduce symptoms or have no affect) 
    • Stress reduction
    • Regular bedtime schedule
    • Avoid caffeine and alcohol near bedtime

Your doctor may suggest you have a sleep lab test (overnight stay with many monitors to access your sleep and help provide data for a diagnosis. It is far beyond the scope of this short article to list all treatments for all sleep problems; however, once you are diagnosed, click on a link (several provided below) that is your diagnosis (or use a search term) to get detailed treatments for your specific problem. The following diagnoses (medical terms) are listed:

Each diagnosis has its own set of treatments; your doctor can help if the disorder is related to an underlying health problem.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.