Common Sleep Disorders in Older Age

24 Mar 2022 | Advice

As people age, sleep disturbances and a change in sleeping patterns are common. But poor sleep is not a normal part of ageing and shouldn’t be accepted as such. Poor sleep on a regular basis can lead to low mood, attention and memory deficits and daytime napping, which makes night-time sleeping more difficult. Lack of sleep is, therefore, associated with a poorer quality of life.  

If poor sleep isn’t related to any specific sleep disorder and is more likely related to poor sleep habits and routines, then look at our top tips for older adults to get a better night’s sleep. 

Are sleep disorders disturbing your sleep? 

Sleep disorders can make falling asleep and staying asleep very difficult. The following sleep disorders affect people of all ages but are more common in older adults. If you spot any of these symptoms in yourself or your loved one, make an appointment to discuss them with the doctor. 


Insomnia can manifest in different ways such as: 

  • Difficulty in falling asleep – sometimes lying awake for hours at a time. 
  • Difficulty in staying asleep – then having difficulty falling asleep again. 
  • Waking up feeling sleepy. 

Insomnia can be both short and long term and can be triggered by physical or emotional stress. The most common cause of insomnia in older adults is frequent night wakings. This is often related to, for example, needing the bathroom during the night, pain from arthritis possibly, heartburn and also, certain medications. 

Sleep-disordered breathing 

This includes snoring and sleep apnoea and both make breathing more difficult while sleeping. These disorders cause continuous sleep disturbances through the night leaving you feeling drowsy during the day. 

  • Snoring happens in 40% of adults but is more common in older age. Not only does it disturb the sleep of the snorer, but it also disturbs the sleep of their partner or spouse. 
  • Sleep ApnoeaCentral sleep apnoea is less common and occurs when there is a disconnect between the brain and the breathing process. Obstructive sleep apnoea is more common in older adults and overweight people and occurs due to the structure of the airways while sleeping.  

Movement disorders 

These include Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder. Both conditions cause the legs (usually) to move at night when sleeping, which disturbs sleep and causes daytime drowsiness. It can also prevent people from falling asleep. 

Restless Leg Syndrome affects 20% of people over the age of 80. Legs feel irritated, tingly, crawling, or have pins and needles. Suffers usually have overwhelming urges to keep moving their legs which obviously causes sleep disturbances. 

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder causes an involuntary movement of limbs every 20-40 seconds. This not only disturbs the sufferers’ sleep but also that of their partner or spouse sharing a bed. Incredibly, it’s thought that up to 40% of older adults suffer from at least a mild version of this. 

Getting help for sleep disorders 

If you think you or your loved one may be suffering from a sleep disorder, make an appointment to see the doctor. The doctor will ask about the symptoms and do an examination to look for any underlying conditions. They may also ask you to complete a sleep diary for 1 to 2 weeks to learn more about your sleep patterns. 

There are various treatment options available depending on the condition or the cause so don’t suffer in silence. Getting treatment could make the world of difference to the quality of life.