How Severe is Insomnia in People 80-Years-Old and Older?

Journal of the American Geriatrics Society Research Summary

Insomnia means having difficulty falling or staying asleep at night. It tends to worsen as we age, and insomnia is a common problem among older adults. As many as 50 percent of people report having trouble sleeping. However, when researchers study insomnia, they may not include older adults in their studies. This means we don’t fully understand insomnia among older people.

A team of researchers from the Yale School of Medicine and the Yale School of Nursing decided to fill the knowledge gap by studying insomnia and its severity in older adults. The researchers’ theory was that insomnia would be more common and severe as people aged and would be linked to other health problems. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The researchers reviewed information from the Yale Precipitating Events Project (PEP), an ongoing study that began around 20 years ago. The study population consists of 754 non-disabled older adults between the ages of 78 and 102 (with an average age of about 84). Over the years, the study’s participants have regularly completed tests at home and interviews to determine their health.

The participants answered questions about sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome, daytime sleepiness, and sleep apnea (the medical term for when your breathing pauses during sleep). They also answered questions to determine whether they had insomnia, and if so, how severe it was.

The researchers reported that 43 percent of the older adults in the study had insomnia, and that restless leg syndrome and symptoms of depression were linked to insomnia. However, the researchers were surprised to discover that the participants’ insomnia was mild.

They also reported another surprising finding. The researchers looked at risk factors for insomnia in younger adults. These risk factors included chronic heart and breathing problems, sleep apnea, taking multiple medications, and cognitive impairment (trouble with thinking abilities). These risk factors were not linked with insomnia in the older study participants.

The researchers concluded that the high rate but mild severity of insomnia highlights the need for healthcare providers to use appropriate tests to confirm sleep problems among older adults. They also suggested that healthcare providers should take depression and restless leg syndrome into account when they treat older adults who have insomnia.

This summary is from “Insomnia in Community-Living Persons with Advanced Age.” It appears online ahead of print in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study authors are Brienne Miner, MD, MHS; Thomas M. Gill, MD; H. Klar Yaggi, MD, MPH; Nancy S. Redeker, PhD, RN; Peter H. Van Ness, PhD, MPH; Ling Han, MD, PhD; and Carlos A. Vaz Fragoso, MD.

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