Caring for Older Adults and their New Sleep Needs

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June 2, 2010

Caring for Older Adults and their New Sleep Needs

As the U.S. population grays, more people will face new responsibilities caring for aging parents and their changing sleep needs. As people age they tend to have a harder time falling asleep and more trouble staying asleep than when they were younger. Older people may also become sleepier in the early evening and wake earlier in the morning compared to younger adults. This pattern, called advanced sleep phase syndrome, means that older people get the same 7 to 8 hours of sleep but they wake early because they have gone to bed early. Elderly patients tend to use more prescription and over-the-counter medications than other age groups in the population. Two-thirds of those in long-term care facilities suffer from sleeping problems. While some institutions rely on tranquilizers to manage sleep habits, these drugs can further increase the risk of falls. Caregivers of patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD) , a brain disorder characterized by the loss of brain tissue and mental abilities, may already be familiar with the negative effects of AD on the sleep/wake cycle. AD usually begins after age 60 and the risk nearly doubles with every 5 years of age after age 60. People suffering from AD often sleep a lot during the day, have trouble staying asleep at night and wander. The amount of sleep disruption in AD patients usually depends on the stage of their disease. Patients in the early stages of AD may sleep more than usual or wake up disoriented. As the disease progresses, patients may begin to sleep during the day and awaken frequently throughout the night. Patients with more advanced Alzheimer's disease rarely sleep for long periods and nap irregularly throughout the day. Caregivers can help by guiding older adults to maintain a regular sleep schedule; getting lots of light during the day, keeping the sleep environment dark, and encouraging exercise such as walks. If you suspect more serious sleep problems, talk to your family doctor.