Aging, Insomnia, and Memory Loss
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Aging, Insomnia, and Memory Loss

The most common sleep disorder at any age of life is insomnia. And while it affects people of all ages, nearly half of all adults over the age of 60 have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. And while you might think that poor sleep is merely just an annoyance, something that can be easily remedied and countered with an occasional nap, over the counter sleep aid, or sleeping in late in the morning, the truth is that untreated insomnia can create a significant sleep debt in someone’s life, and can take a serious toll on a senior’s mental and physical health.

Insomnia may be acute or chronic, depending on the amount of time symptoms last since onset. Short term insomnia will only last for a month at most, but chronic insomnia will persist for much longer. Seniors suffering from insomnia may experience any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Taking a long time, more than 30 to 45 minutes, to fall asleep
  • Multiple incidents of waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to return to sleep.
  • Waking up early and being unable to fall back asleep.
  • Waking up feeling tired and being unable to function well during the day.

Short term insomnia in seniors can have many different causes. Stressful events, such as significant life changes like moving, death or an illness of a loved one, or more, can all cause temporary fluctuations in sleep. Other causes can be attributed to illnesses, medications, changes in routine, or environmental factors.

When long term insomnia is experienced, it is typically due to a more serious underlying cause, such as depression, an anxiety disorder, chronic pain conditions, or chronic stress. Neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease, dementia, multiple sclerosis, and other chronic illnesses cause all kinds of sleep disturbances that can make other symptoms worse.

It is a pervasive myth that seniors require less sleep as they age. While sleeping and waking patterns do tend to change as we get on in years, the overall need for sleep remains more or less constant in adulthood. Just because seniors tend to be sleepier earlier in the evening, and wake up earlier in the morning, doesn’t mean that the total number of hours declines. Many seniors will also catch up on missed or poor quality sleep with naps throughout the day.

If insomnia goes unaddressed, it can seriously affect mental and physical health. Uninterrupted, quality and restful sleep is a crucial part of memory formation. Trouble sleeping throughout the night can worsen previously minor symptoms like fatigue and irritability, as well as cause lapses in memory. Sleep patterns have been shown in studies to have a direct link to the formation of Alzheimer’s disease. This is itself a negative feedback loop, because Alzheimer’s disease generally causes difficulty sleeping, which exacerbates the symptoms and accelerates the disease’s progression.

Sleep problems are increasingly common in older adults, but the reality is that they don’t have to be. Experiencing the symptoms of insomnia, or any other sleep disorder, it’s important to consult with your primary care provider. Difficulty sleeping is not necessarily a normal part of aging to be accepted, and treatments are available to ensure quality rest at night. Troubled sleep puts seniors at risk of developing other, potentially more serious health issues.