Questions to Ask Your Parent About Insomnia Before Going to the Doctor

Between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine. About 50 percent of people over the age of 60 struggle with getting a good night's sleep, and it could affect their overall health. Typical complaints are awakening frequently, not being able to fall asleep, waking up too early in the morning, and daytime napping.

Snoring is one common culprit that steals sleep from the elderly. When severe it can cause the snorer to wake frequently at night. This is because he's not breathing easily.

Snoring can signal a more serious sleep disorder common in the elderly, especially in men and especially if they're overweight: sleep apnea. This disorder can cause its sufferers to stop breathing temporarily, and it can also lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack.

To prepare for a doctor visit to deal with sleeping problems, ask your parent the following questions:

Have you been feeling sad or despondent?

If your parent has felt sad or despondent for two weeks or longer, it could be a sign of depression. Insomnia is a symptom of major depression.

When did you start to have trouble sleeping?

Knowing this could help the doctor understand if the start of your parent's sleep problems coincided with the onset of mourning for the death of a loved one or friend, a physical illness, or the use of new medications.

What time do you go to sleep each night?

With age, our biological clock, the so-called circadian rhythms that control waking and sleeping, changes. Your parent may be going to bed too early, and her doctor may recommend that she stay up later.

How many times each night do you have to get out of bed to go to the toilet?

This may lead your doctor to ask if urinary incontinence is a problem, or in men it may indicate an enlarged prostate, which can increase the need to urinate. Frequent urination at night could also indicate a urinary tract infection or diabetes. If your parent takes diuretics, he may be taking them too late in the day. If there's no underlying condition, your parent's doctor may simply recommend cutting down on drinking fluids in the evening.

More Questions About Sleep

How long do you stay in bed after you wake up each morning?

Researchers say that staying in bed after waking up makes people feel less satisfied with sleep.

When and how long do you nap during the day?

Too much napping leads to worse nighttime sleep. Your doctor may suggest a regimen that includes limiting the amount of time spent napping during the day.

Do you have any physical symptoms that interfere with your ability to fall asleep?

Your parent's doctor could treat the underlying symptoms -- for example, arthritis pain. This information could also help your parent's doctor decide whether it's necessary to order tests to see if a chronic condition is worsening or a new condition is developing.

Do you notice any sensations in your legs before you go to sleep?

These could signal restless leg syndrome, a movement disorder that interrupts sleep by causing tingling or the feeling of pins and needles in the legs. It's associated with iron deficiency and some nerve problems, among other conditions, and is common in older people.

What medications and over-the-counter medications are you taking?

Certain medications, alone or in combination, can cause insomnia in the elderly. Some drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease, for example, can cause insomnia, along with beta-blockers, medication to treat abnormal heart rhythms, and many other medications.

Do you typically nod off during the day when you don't want to?

Fatigue during the day could be a sign of a mood disorder or an adverse drug reaction.

Do you wake up with a headache in the morning?

A morning headache could indicate sleep apnea.

Laurie Udesky

Laurie Udesky has covered health and medical issues for National Public Radio (NPR); produced features for "Crossroads," a cross-cultural program that aired on NPR; and served as a reporter or editor for medical trade journals such as TB Monitor and AIDS Alert. See full bio