Management of chronic insomnia in elderly persons

Am J Geriatr Pharmacother. 2006 Jun;4(2):168-92. doi: 10.1016/j.amjopharm.2006.06.006.


Background: Chronic insomnia is common among the elderly These elderly patients are often viewed as difficult to treat, yet they are among the groups with the greatest need of treatment.

Objective: This article reviews the literature on the management of chronic insomnia in elderly persons.

Methods: A search of MEDLINE was conducted for articles published in English between January 1966 and March 2006 using the terms insomnia, behavioral therapy, estsazolsam, fluvsazepsam, qusazepsam, teMsazepsam, tvisazolsam, eszopiclone, zaleplon, zolpidem, mirtazapine, nefazodone, trazodone, and ramelteon. Articles were selected if they were meta-analyses or evidence-based reviews of therapeutic modalities; randomized controlled trials of nonpharmacologic or pharmacologic treatment; or review articles covering the characteristics and management of insomnia. Preference was given to meta-analyses, evidence-based reviews, and articles that included relevant new information.

Results: Available options for the treatment of insomnia include nonpharmacologic approaches, foremost among them cognitive behavioral therapy, and pharmacotherapies, including chloral hydrate, barbiturates, over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription antihistamines, OTC dietary supplements (including melatonin), sedating antidepressants, benzodiazepine and nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics, and melatonin agonists. There is considerable evidence to support the effectiveness and durability of nonpharmacologic interventions for insomnia in adults of all ages, yet these interventions are underutilized. With some recent exceptions, the majority of identified studies of pharmacotherapy were of short duration (< or =6 weeks) and did not exclusively enroll older adults. Compared with the benzodiazepines, the nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics appeared to offer few, if any, significant clinical advantages in efficacy or tolerability in elderly persons. Newer agents with novel mechanisms of action and improved safety profiles, such as the melatonin agonists, hold promise for the management of chronic insomnia in elderly people.

Conclusions: Long-term use of sedative-hypnotics for insomnia lacks an evidence base and has traditionally been discouraged for reasons that include concerns about such potential adverse drug effects as cognitive impairment (anterograde amnesia), daytime sedation, motor incoordination, and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and falls. In addition, the effectiveness and safety of long-term use of these agents remain to be determined. More research is needed to evaluate the long-term effects of treatment and the most appropriate management strategy for elderly persons with chronic insomnia.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / administration & dosage
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / adverse effects
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / therapeutic use
  • Male
  • Nonprescription Drugs / therapeutic use
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Relaxation Therapy
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / diagnosis
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / drug therapy
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / therapy*


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Nonprescription Drugs