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Excessive Sleep in the Elderly
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Excessive Sleep in the Elderly

December 08, 2019

Daytime sleepiness is very common among elderly people. Sometimes it’s just a sign of interrupted nighttime sleeping due to poor sleep habits, an uncomfortable environment, the aches and pains of aging or a side effect of medications. But excessive daytime sleep in the elderly can also point to impaired nighttime breathing and other sleep disorders. Recent studies have shown connections between excessive sleep and cognitive impairment in the elderly, so it’s a symptom you should not ignore.

Is It Normal for Elderly People to Sleep a Lot?

As we age, we tend to get less deep sleep than when we were younger. It is common for older adults to wake up frequently throughout the night due to aches from arthritis, an overactive bladder or even an increased sensitivity to sounds or changes in temperature. Many people make up for this light or lost sleep with a daytime nap. That is normal and not cause for concern. Nor is heading to bed a little earlier than you used to.
Photo of Older Man Looking Tired with Face Resting on Hand
But if you notice yourself or a loved one spending a lot of each day in bed or asleep in a favorite chair, there may be a problem. Explore habits and environmental factors that may be causing loss of sleep first. Then, talk to a doctor about possible medical or physical issues that may lead to excessive daytime sleepiness.

What Causes Excessive Sleep in the Elderly?

Sleep deprivation is the most common cause of daytime sleepiness. This can be caused by something as simple as a too-warm room, too much coffee during the day or achy joints at night.

Sometimes daytime fatigue stems from boredom. If chronic health conditions and age-related changes are keeping someone from doing the things they enjoy, they may start taking more frequent naps just to pass the time. 

Medications may also be the culprit. Over-the-counter and prescription medications for conditions like allergies, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease and nausea all count excessive sleepiness as a possible side effect. Talk to a doctor about alternatives if you think medications may be to blame.
What are some of the more serious causes of excessive sleep in the elderly?
  • Depression: Depression can cause excessive sleepiness in someone of any age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depression affects about 1% to 5% of the general elderly population, as well as 13.5% of elderly people who require home healthcare and 11.5% of older hospital patients. It can be triggered by a medical condition, loss of loved ones or friends, lifestyle changes or chemical changes in the brain. It’s important to recognize depression in seniors because while the condition is relatively common, it is not normal and should be treated.
  • Dementia: Seniors with dementia may experience a wide array of sleep problems, especially as the disease progresses. Sleep deprivation can make symptoms and agitation worse, so it’s important to seek treatment for sleep problems and excessive sleepiness.
  • Sleep Disorders and Conditions: Sleep disorders and conditions may result in changes in the way that you sleep and can impact your overall health and quality of life. Some of the more common conditions are described below.

Common Sleep Disorders and Conditions

Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep-related disorders. This potentially serious condition causes someone to repeatedly stop and start breathing throughout the night. People with sleep apnea are often sleepy during the day and may have other symptoms like loud snoring and gasping while sleeping, a sore throat or headache in the morning, irritability and trouble concentrating. Sleep apnea has a variety of causes, but identification and treatment are important, as it can lead to heart problems and other health issues. Your doctor may recommend a sleep study to determine the cause – and best treatment – of sleep apnea.

Restless legs syndrome causes an irresistible and uncomfortable urge to move the legs. This can make it difficult for someone to fall asleep, resulting in excessive sleepiness the next day. Treatment may include supplements for iron deficiency, medications and home remedies like taking warm baths before bed or avoiding caffeine.

Periodic limb movement disorder causes repetitive cramping or jerking of the legs during sleep. It can occur on its own or as a result of diabetes, a spinal cord injury or another condition. Medications are available to ease some of the symptoms.

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders involve a problem in the timing of when a person sleeps and is awake. Problems can be caused by many things, including jet lag, too much light at night, too little activity during the day, or a medical condition like congestive heart failure. Improving sleep habits may help and medications are also available.

REM sleep behavior disorder causes a person to physically act out vivid, often unpleasant dreams with vocal sounds and sudden, often violent arm and leg movements during rapid eye movement sleep. REM sleep behavior disorder may occur on its own or be associated with other neurological conditions, such as Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease or multiple system atrophy. Treatment may include sleep environment modifications, melatonin and medication. 

Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that causes fragmented night sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. It features abnormal REM sleep and can cause brief attacks of muscle weakness and tone that can lead to body collapse. Severe narcolepsy can have a negative impact on a person’s ability to perform daily activities and on their overall health. It can be treated with medications and lifestyle adjustments. 

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