Managing Sleep Problems in Older Adults

Jim Kling

August 20, 2021

Sleep problems are prevalent in older adults, and overmedication is a common cause. Insomnia is a concern, and it might not look the same in older adults as it does in younger populations, especially when neurodegenerative disorders may be present. "There's often not only the inability to get to sleep and stay asleep in older adults but also changes in their biological rhythms, which is why treatments really need to be focused on both," Ruth M. Benca, MD, PhD, said in an interview.

Benca spoke on the topic of insomnia in the elderly at a virtual meeting presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists. She is chair of psychiatry at Wake Forest Baptist Health, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Sleep issues strongly affect quality of life and health outcomes in the elderly, and there isn't a lot of clear guidance for physicians to manage these issues. "We hear a lot about what we shouldn't be giving to older adults, but not a lot about what should we be doing," said Benca, who spoke at the meeting presented by MedscapeLive. MedscapeLive and this news organization are owned by the same parent company.

Behavioral approaches are important, because quality of sleep is often affected by daytime activities, such as exercise and light exposure, according to Benca, who said that those factors can and should be addressed by behavioral interventions. Medications should be used as an adjunct to those treatments. "When we do need to use medications, we need to use ones that have been tested and found to be more helpful than harmful in older adults," Benca said.

Many Food and Drug Administration–approved drugs should be used with caution or avoided in the elderly. The Beers criteria provide a useful list of potentially problematic drugs, and removing those drugs from consideration leaves just a few options, including the melatonin receptor agonist ramelteon, low doses of the tricyclic antidepressant doxepin, and dual orexin receptor antagonists, which are being tested in older adults, including some with dementia, Benca said.

Other drugs like benzodiazepines and related "Z" drugs can cause problems like amnesia, confusion, and psychomotor issues. "They're advised against because there are some concerns about those side effects," Benca said.

Sleep disturbance itself can be the result of polypharmacy. Even something as simple as a diuretic can interrupt slumber because of nocturnal bathroom visits. Antihypertensives and drugs that affect the central nervous system, including antidepressants, can affect sleep. "I've had patients get horrible dreams and nightmares from antihypertensive drugs. So there's a very long laundry list of drugs that can affect sleep in a negative way," said Benca.

Physicians have a tendency to prescribe more drugs to a patient without eliminating any, which can result in complex situations. "We see this sort of chasing the tail: You give a drug, it may have a positive effect on the primary thing you want to treat, but it has a side effect. When you give another drug to treat that side effect, it in turn has its own side effect. We keep piling on drugs," Benca said.

"So if [a patient is] on medications for an indication, and particularly for sleep or other things, and the patient isn't getting better, what we might want to do is slowly to withdraw things. Even for older adults who are on sleeping medications and maybe are doing better, sometimes we can decrease the dose [of the other drugs], or get them off those drugs or put them on something that might be less likely to have side effects," Benca said.

To do that, she suggests taking a history to determine when the sleep problem began, and whether it coincided with adding or changing a medication. Another approach is to look at the list of current medications, and look for drugs that are prescribed for a problem and where the problem still persists. "You might want to take that away first, before you start adding something else," said Benca.

Another challenge is that physicians are often unwilling to investigate sleep disorders, which are more common in older adults. Physicians can be reluctant to prescribe sleep medications, and may also be unfamiliar with behavioral interventions. "For a lot of providers, getting into sleep issues is like opening a Pandora's Box. I think mostly physicians are taught: Don't do this, and don't do that. They're not as well versed in the things that they can and should do," said Benca.

If attempts to treat insomnia don't succeed, or if the physician suspects a movement disorder or primary sleep disorder like sleep apnea, then the patients should be referred to a sleep specialist, according to Benca.

During the question-and-answer period following her talk, a questioner brought up the increasingly common use of cannabis to improve sleep. That can be tricky because it can be difficult to stop cannabis use, because of the rebound insomnia that may persist. She noted that there are ongoing studies on the potential impact of cannabidiol oil.

Benca was also asked about patients who take sedatives chronically and seem to be doing well. She emphasized the need for finding the lowest effective dose of a short-acting medication. "Patients should be monitored frequently, at least every 6 months. Just monitor your patient carefully."

Benca is a consultant for Eisai, Genomind, Idorsia, Jazz, Merck, Sage, and Sunovion.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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