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 Sleep Health: Untreated Sleep Problems Compound Health Problems of Older Americans 
National Sleep Foundation ©

Sleep problems are especially acute among those older adults who have more than one medical condition: eight in ten with four or more medical conditions report a sleep problem compared to about one half of those with no reported medical conditions (80% vs. 53%). In addition, the poll connects poor sleep with three physical problems affecting many older people: bodily pain, excess weight and ambulatory limitations.

According to the newest findings:

  • More than three-quarters (77%) of those who report having frequent bodily pain also report a sleep problem.
  • Sleep problems are equally common among older adults who are classified as obese (77%) and are linked with two-thirds (64%) of those who are considered overweight by medical standards; and
  • The vast majority of older people with impaired mobility are likely to report a sleep problem (84%), with two-thirds experiencing a symptom of insomnia.
  • Moreover, about four in ten of those with impaired mobility report unpleasant feelings in their legs, a symptom of Restless Legs Syndrome, a serious, treatable sleep disorder. 

Insomnia is the most common sleep problem, with about one-half of older adults (48%) reporting they frequently experience at least one symptom. (Symptoms of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, waking a lot during the night, waking up too early and not getting back to sleep, and waking feeling unrefreshed).

While waking up a lot in the middle of the night is the most common insomnia complaint, the biggest overall problem disrupting the sleep of older adults is the need to get up and go to the bathroom, with nearly two thirds (65%) reporting this disturbance at least a few nights a week. 

Rounding out the link between sleep and health, the poll finds that the better the sleep, the better the perceived health of older adults. Those who rate their health as "very good" or "excellent," for example, report less daytime sleepiness than those with "fair" or "poor" health (9% vs. 29%). They also report fewer insomnia symptoms (38% vs. 71%), and fewer sleep problems (59% vs. 85%). And the healthy are less likely to categorize their sleep as "fair" or "poor" (13% vs. 47%).

COMPARING SLEEP PATTERNS OF OLDER AND YOUNGER ADULTS Besides charting the sleep patterns of older adults, the 2003 Sleep in America poll dispels the notion that the older we are, the less we sleep. In fact, the poll shows older adults sleep about the same amount as their younger counterparts, though their sleep habits are substantially different.

Providing an up-to-date look at how older adults are sleeping, the poll finds that:

  • The sleep patterns of older adults are more consistent than those of their younger counterparts. Older adults get about the same amount of sleep on weeknights (7.0 hrs/night) and weekends (7.1 hrs/night), while younger adults sleep less during the week (6.7 hrs/night), increasing their sleep on weekends (7.6 hrs/night). About 13 percent of older adults sleep less than six hours on weeknights compared to l6 percent of those 18-54.
  • The frequency of adults' sleep problems tends to diminish slightly with age. Of those aged 55-64, seven in ten (71%) report experiencing a frequent sleep problem compared to 65 percent of those aged 65-74, and 64 percent of those aged 75-84.

      When it comes to the sleep patterns of older men and women, the poll finds no major gender differences. However, older women are more likely to report at least one symptom of insomnia (50% vs. 45%), while older men are more likely to report they snore (40% vs. 26%) and experience pauses in breathing during sleep (10% vs. 5%).

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