The Role of Mirtazapine in Sleep for Older Adults

As people age, sleep patterns often deteriorate, which can significantly affect overall health and quality of life. In aged care, addressing these sleep disturbances is a critical component of healthcare. Mirtazapine, primarily known as an antidepressant, is frequently used to improve sleep among older adults, particularly those who also experience symptoms of depression.

What is Mirtazapine and What is it Used For?

Mirtazapine is an antidepressant that falls under the category of tetracyclic antidepressants, with a distinctive pharmacological profile that differentiates it from other types of commonly prescribed antidepressants. It is widely used in aged care, particularly for managing major depression where insomnia and anxiety are prominent symptoms. Its approval for treating major depression includes the prevention of relapse and the management of accompanying anxiety symptoms, which often exacerbate the primary condition.

Mirtazapine is particularly effective due to its dual action. While its antidepressant efficacy aligns with that of other antidepressants like SSRIs (e.g., paroxetine) and SNRIs (e.g., venlafaxine), mirtazapine is noted for its quicker onset of action in alleviating anxiety symptoms associated with depression. This can be a crucial benefit, given that SSRIs may initially increase anxiety symptoms before providing relief.

The Challenges of Sleep in Older Adults

Sleep problems are a prevalent issue among older adults, particularly those residing in aged care facilities. As individuals age, their sleep architecture undergoes significant changes that can adversely affect their overall health and quality of life.

Older adults, including those without dementia, typically experience a reduction in the restorative stages of sleep, which are crucial for physical repair and memory consolidation. Instead, they spend more time in lighter sleep stages, which are easily interrupted by periods of wakefulness. This shift not only diminishes sleep quality but also reduces the total sleep time, which decreases by about 27 minutes per decade from mid-life until the eighth decade.

The situation is further complicated for individuals suffering from dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. These individuals often exhibit a complete reversal of normal sleep patterns, characterised by sleep fragmentation, poor sleep quality, and predominantly shallow sleep. This disruption in sleep can exacerbate other symptoms of dementia, leading to increased confusion and behavioural issues during waking hours.

A comprehensive assessment of underlying conditions is essential before considering pharmacological interventions for sleep disturbances. Various health issues, including sleep apnea, nocturia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), depression, anxiety, pain, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), and restless legs syndrome, significantly impact sleep by either interrupting sleep or reducing its quality.

Additionally, certain medications commonly prescribed to the elderly can disrupt sleep. These include beta-blockers, corticosteroids such as prednisone or prednisolone, SSRI antidepressants, venlafaxine, and diuretics. Lifestyle factors such as the consumption of caffeine and alcohol also play a detrimental role in sleep quality.

Given these challenges, non-drug strategies are recommended as the first line of management for sleep disturbances in the elderly. This approach includes sleep hygiene practices, cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi), relaxation techniques, and other behavioural interventions. These methods aim to improve sleep without the side effects associated with pharmacological treatments.

When non-drug treatments are insufficient, medication therapy may be considered but typically offers limited benefits. For instance, medications like benzodiazepines might be used for short-term management (less than two weeks) due to their quick tolerance development and potential for dependence. Similarly, newer options like melatonin and suvorexant provide specific benefits but also have limitations, particularly in terms of long-term efficacy and safety.

Overall, addressing sleep problems in older adults requires a holistic approach that considers all potential underlying factors and prioritises non-pharmacological interventions over medication. When medications are necessary, careful consideration of the type, timing, and duration of treatment is crucial to minimise risks and maximise benefits.

Addressing Insomnia in Aged Care

Before turning to pharmacological solutions, it’s crucial to review potential underlying causes of sleep disturbances such as sleep apnea, nocturia, or depression. Non-drug remedies like sleep hygiene, cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia, and relaxation techniques are recommended first-line treatments. When these are insufficient, medications like Mirtazapine can be considered for short-term management to complement these strategies.

Non-Drug Remedies

Non-medication strategies should always be the first step in managing insomnia in older adults. This includes establishing a regular sleep routine, ensuring a comfortable sleeping environment, and possibly engaging in therapies aimed at reducing stress and anxiety.

How Does Mirtazapine Help Sleeplessness in Older Adults?

Mirtazapine improves sleep by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep, decreasing night-time awakenings, and increasing the duration of deep sleep. It is sedating at lower doses, making it particularly useful for patients who struggle with sleep initiation.

Mirtazapine Dosage

Mirtazapine is available in several dosage forms and strengths, making it adaptable to varying patient needs, especially in the elderly population where managing medication regimens can be complex due to polypharmacy and varying degrees of medical comorbidities.

For the treatment of depression with symptoms of insomnia in aged care, the recommended starting dose of Mirtazapine is typically 15mg per day. This dose takes advantage of Mirtazapine’s sedative properties, as it is administered as a single night-time dose before bed to help improve sleep onset and duration.

Dose adjustments may be necessary based on the patient’s response to treatment and any side effects they experience. Lower doses are often more sedating and beneficial for initiating sleep, whereas higher doses might be required to effectively manage depression but can be less sedating. Monitoring and adjusting the dose is crucial, especially in the elderly, to balance the benefits against potential risks such as increased falls or cognitive impairment.

Mirtazapine Side Effects

Mirtazapine is an effective medication for both depression and sleep disturbances but comes with a range of potential side effects that healthcare providers must monitor. Among the most commonly observed are increased appetite and weight gain. This can sometimes be seen as a benefit in older patients who suffer from anorexia or have unexplained weight loss. Sedation, another frequent side effect, is beneficial for patients who struggle with sleep but can pose risks during waking hours such as increased risk of falls and fractures, particularly in frail elderly populations.

Other notable side effects include:

  • Dry Mouth: Mirtazapine has some anticholinergic effects, which can lead to dryness in the mouth.
  • Peripheral Oedema: Some patients may experience swelling in their extremities.
  • Dizziness: This can occur, particularly when getting up suddenly from a lying or sitting position, and can increase the risk of falls.

While Mirtazapine is associated with fewer sexual side effects than SSRI and SNRI antidepressants, it’s necessary to discuss these potential issues with patients, as they can affect compliance and overall satisfaction with treatment.

Mirtazapine FAQs

Is Mirtazapine safe for elderly patients?

Mirtazapine is considered safe for elderly patients when used with appropriate monitoring. Its favourable side-effect profile, particularly the lower risk of sexual side effects and less severe anticholinergic effects compared to other antidepressants, makes it a suitable option for older adults. However, its sedative properties, while beneficial for sleep issues, require careful management to minimise risks such as falls and cognitive impairment.

How long does it take for Mirtazapine to improve sleep?

Improvements in sleep can typically be observed within the first few weeks of starting Mirtazapine. Patients may notice quicker sleep onset and fewer night-time awakenings. The increase in deep sleep stages can also enhance overall sleep quality, contributing to better daytime functioning and mood stability.

Can Mirtazapine be used long-term?

Mirtazapine can be used for the long-term management of depression and associated insomnia, especially in aged care settings. Regular evaluations are essential to ensure it continues to be the best treatment option for the patient, considering any changes in their overall health and potential long-term side effects such as weight gain or metabolic changes.

How should Mirtazapine be administered to maximise its effectiveness for sleep?

Mirtazapine should ideally be administered as a single night-time dose due to its sedative effects, which can help in improving the initiation and maintenance of sleep. Starting at a lower dose, such as 7.5mg or 15mg, maximises these sedative effects without the risk of disrupting sleep architecture, which can occur at higher doses.

Key Takeaways

  • Mirtazapine effectively treats both depression and sleep disturbances.
  • It reduces sleep onset latency and enhances the duration of deep sleep.
  • Sedative effects are prominent at lower doses, making it ideal for initiating sleep.
  • Mirtazapine has a favourable side effect profile suitable for elderly patients.
  • It should be part of a broader care strategy that includes both pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments.


Mirtazapine is a critical tool in the management of sleep disturbances in older adults, especially those in aged care facilities. By combining Mirtazapine with appropriate lifestyle modifications and therapeutic interventions, healthcare providers can significantly improve the sleep quality and overall well-being of their patients.

If you’re experiencing challenges with managing sleep disturbances in an aged care facility, contact us today to see how we can help.