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Large Mayo Clinic Study Finds Sleep Disorders Common in the Elderly

Large Mayo Clinic Study Finds Sleep Disorders Common in the Elderly

Sleep disorders are common in persons older than 70 years, according to a large community-based study of age-related diseases and cognitive functioning.¹ The most common disorder, sleep-related leg cramps, occurred in 32% of the study participants, according to investigator Jennifer Molano, MD, a behavioral neurology fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Of 892 people aged 70 to 89 assessed for sleep disturbances as part of the Mayo Clinic’s Study on Aging, 59% had signs of at least 1 sleep disorder. Participants were randomly selected residents of Olmsted County, Minnesota. Data were obtained through questionnaires completed by informants who shared a bed with the study participant. “The majority of study participants have been married 60 years,” added Molano.

Common sleep disorders found in the study group were obstructive sleep apnea (17.6%); periodic, involuntary movements in the legs or arms during sleep (17.4%); REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) (9%); and restless legs syndrome (8%). Just 0.2% experienced somnambulance.

“All of these sleep disorders can disrupt a person’s quality of life, because they affect sleep,” said Molano. “But if these problems are recognized, an accurate diagnosis could lead to successful treatment.”

While previous community-based studies of older adults have investigated the frequency of insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea, the Mayo Clinic study is one of the first to assess the frequency of a broad spectrum of sleep disorders.

Men experienced sleep disorders more often than women in the study. For example, men were 4 times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than women were. The frequency of probable RBD was higher in people aged 80 or older who had worsening cognitive impairment or dementia.

So far, about 90 of the study participants have undergone polysomnograms that measure eye, leg, and other movements and record breathing and brain activity during sleep. Molano said the clinic hopes to expand the use of polysomnography in more participants as a validation tool.


1. Molano JR, Boeve BF, Roberts RO, et al. Frequency of Sleep Disorders in the Community-Dwelling Elderly: The Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. [S07.005] Scientific Sessions: Sleep Disorders, April 28, 2009.
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