Insomnia in the elderly: a review for the primary care practitioner

Sleep. 2000 Feb 1:23 Suppl 1:S23-30; discussion S36-8.


The elderly are known to have a high prevalence of insomnia. Causes of insomnia include: medical, psychiatric, and drug issues; circadian rhythm changes; sleep disorders; and psychosocial factors. The elderly frequently use sleeping aids. Risks associated with elderly patients' use of hypnotic drugs are attributable to concomitant comorbid conditions, use of multiple medications, altered pharmacokinetics, and increased central nervous system sensitivity to these drugs. Treatment options for insomnia include behavior modification and pharmacotherapy. The choice of hypnotics is based on matching the nature of the insomnia to the hypnotic agent. Benzodiazepine receptor agonists are common hypnotics prescribed for insomnia in the elderly. The ideal agent has rapid onset, duration of action that lasts through the night but no residual daytime effects, and no adverse effects. The longer-acting agents have been shown to result in a higher risk of falls and hip fractures in the elderly. This relationship is not apparent with short-acting agents. Zaleplon, the newest benzodiazepine receptor agonist, has the shortest half-life of available agents. Studies have demonstrated that zaleplon is effective in improving sleep latency, duration, and sleep quality in the elderly. Zaleplon does not appear to cause rebound insomnia, residual sedation, or adversely affect psychomotor function. The key for the healthcare professional is finding the appropriate treatment or treatment combination, including behavioral modification and pharmacotherapy. When hypnotics are indicated, the most appropriate short-acting agent should be considered.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / therapeutic use
  • Male
  • Primary Health Care
  • Sex Factors
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / psychology
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / therapy*
  • Sleep, REM / physiology


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives