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Sleep Disorders

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Q. What are sleep disorders?

A. Sleep disorders are disturbances of sleep that may be caused by many factors such as retirement and changes in social patterns or medications. While changes in sleep patterns have been viewed as part of the normal aging process, new information indicates that many of these disturbances may be related to pathological processes that are associated with aging. In addition to affecting the quality of life, troubled sleep has been implicated with excess mortality.

Q. Don’t most older people experience sleep disturbances as they age?

A. Although the exact numbers are not yet known, it has been estimated that disturbances of sleep afflict more than half of the people 65 and older who live at home and about two-thirds of those who live in long-term care facilities. Problems in sleep and daytime wakefulness disrupt not only the lives of older persons but also those of their families and caregivers. People over 65 years of age now constitute almost 13 percent of the American population but consume over 30 percent of all dispensed prescription drugs, as well as an unknown percentage of over-the-counter medicines. A large proportion of these drugs are sedatives and hypnotic agents, the safety and efficacy of which have not been established for older people. Nor has it been established to what extent drugs contribute to or alleviate problems of sleep. It is necessary to understand the causes of these disorders and to develop better treatment strategies, including non-pharmacological methods.

Q. What causes sleep disorders?

A. Sleep disorders may have a number of causes, depending on the particular illness. In the case of sleep apnea, for example, the disorder develops from specific causes, while narcolepsy (a condition of unexpected waves of falling asleep) has no known cause.