Getting sleep in older age can be complicated by a multitude of factors. One of those factors are movement disorders while sleeping. When you are asleep, your body is essentially paralyzed, especially in rapid eye movement sleep, or dreaming sleep. This is because your body wants to protect itself from potential harm of acting out your dreams.
However, there are certain conditions where this doesn't happen. One of those is called restless leg syndrome (RLS)). Another, which sounds very similar, is periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). Both of these are very common in the elderly, further exacerbating or complicating any sleep disorders they may already be experiencing. Continue reading to find out the difference between these two disorders.
Sleep Changes in the Elderly
Before diving further into PLMD and RLS, it's important to understand age-related changes to sleep that happen in the elderly. One reason that elderly individuals experience more sleep disturbances is because of the changes in sensitivity to light which can lead to phase changes.
We sleep in phases, and when we are younger, these phases can be later, so we go to sleep later and wake up later. As we age, we begin to shift backwards so we go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier. It's almost like flying backwards to a time zone that is hours behind. This is due to decreasing releases of melatonin and decreased sensitivity to light because of degeneration of eyes. This creates disturbing sleep changes that can be frustrating as they are unable to stay up late, and consistently wake up earlier than intended.
Restless Leg Syndrome
RLS is a sleep disorder that can further exacerbate these issues. It is characterized as tingling or itching sensations that go up and down the legs and can only be relieved by movement. It feels as if something is crawling on them and can be quite disturbing for sleep.
RLS is disturbing to the sleeper because they are constantly kicking and moving, trying to relieve the discomfort in their legs. It is also disruptive to their bed partner who is interrupted by all the movement of their partner.
RLS can cause insomnia which can lead to excessive tiredness. Fatigue and stress further worsen RLS and RLS further worsens fatigue and stress. FInding a solution for one may hopefully alleviate issues with another.
Periodic Limb Movement Disorder
PLMD is a disorder where people feel the need to kick their legs or jerk them every 20 to 40 seconds. This is different than RLS because there are no tingling sensations. It is almost like a twitch, or an overwhelming desire to move one's legs.
This is really disruptive to sleep because the movements are normally not very subtle. Also, other body parts outside of the legs are affected as well, so these frequent jerks happen all through the night at different places.
Causes of these sleep disorders
There are no official causes linked to either of these disorders, however, iron deficiency has been a common finding in individuals with these disorders. Iron is a micro-vitamin that is necessary for proper oxygen delivery throughout the body and red blood cell function. It can be lost through excess bleeding (such as gastrointestinal bleeding or heavy menstruation) or deficient because of poor intake or absorption.
Taking iron supplements and avoiding anything that can decrease the acidity of your stomach acids can help increase iron storage levels and decrease the severity of some of these disorders.
PLMD can also be a symptom of Parkinson's Disease which is a movement disorder. Taking medications that offer assistance for Parkinson's may also be a treatment option for PLMD.
Why treatments are necessary?
Sleep deprivation is problematic for anyone of any age. However, as people age, sleep deprivation may stand in the way of longevity. Sleep deprivation can lead to inflammatory states, increase the risk or severity of high blood pressure, worsen the risk or severity of diabetes,
It's important to maintain a good sleep schedule and still get 7-8 hours of good quality sleep, even into old age. PLMD and RLS may interfere with the quality of sleep, leaving individuals highly sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation impairs memory, mood, the immune system, among other negative consequences.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with one of these sleep disorders and needs assistance, please click the orange button below for more information.