Seniors live life with the inevitable aches and pains, and often one more unfair circumstance of aging: it’s harder to go to sleep, stay asleep and wake up refreshed. As a result, many older adults are more tired during the day.
And let’s face it, restaurants offer early-hour, blue-hair specials for a reason. Even healthy, older people tend to become sleepier in the early evening and wake earlier in the morning compared to younger adults. This pattern is called advanced sleep phase syndrome. The sleep rhythm is shifted forward, so seniors tend to go to bed early, and wake up early.
According to sleepfoundation.org, studies on the sleep habits of older Americans show an increase in the time it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency), an overall decline in REM sleep, and an increase in sleep fragmentation (waking up during the night) with age. Actual sleep disorders also tend to increase with age, as sleep problems can be attributed to physical and psychiatric illnesses and the medications used to treat them.
As we age, there is an increased incidence of medical problems, which are often chronic. In general, people with poor health or chronic medical conditions have more sleep problems. In addition, menopause and its accompanying hot flashes, changes in breathing, and decreasing hormone levels can lead to many restless nights.
Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by having trouble falling and/or staying asleep. Older adults are more likely to suffer from it. People with insomnia can experience excessive daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating. Insomnia can also increase the risk of accidents and illness as well as significantly reduce quality of life.
If insomnia is creating serious effects, complicating other conditions, or making a person too tired to function normally during their waking hours, it is important to seek treatment. Both behavioral therapies and prescription medications are considered an effective means to treat insomnia.
Snoring is the primary cause of sleep disruption for approximately 90 million American adults. Snoring is most commonly associated with persons who are overweight, and the condition often becomes worse with age. Loud snoring is particularly serious as it can be a symptom of sleep apnea and is associated with high blood pressure and other health problems.
With sleep apnea, breathing stops momentarily, and the amount of oxygen in the blood drops. This causes a snorer to awake startled. These breathing blockages can occur often over the course of a night’s sleep and result in unnecessary daytime sleepiness.
Sleep apnea puts a person at risk for cardiovascular disease, headaches, memory loss and depression, and is a serious sleeping disorder. However, it can be easily treated. If you or your partner experience snoring on a regular basis that can be heard from another room or makes loud gasping noises during your sleep, these are signs that you might have sleep apnea and it is time to be tested by a doctor.
Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is an irresistible urge to move the limbs. With RLS, unpleasant, tingling, creeping, or pulling feelings occur mostly in the legs, become worse in the evening and make it difficult to sleep through the night. Its prevalence increases with age. In one study, it was found that approximately 45 percent of all older persons have at least a mild form of periodic limb movement disorder.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is another common cause of sleep disruption, because the pain makes it difficult to sleep. Medical conditions such as diabetes mellitus, renal failure, respiratory diseases such as asthma, and immune disorders are all associated with sleep problems. Diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis also commonly cause problems sleeping.
However, sleep disturbance among the elderly doesn’t have to be inevitable. Follow these tips to improve your sleep and get the rest you need.
National Sleep Foundation Tips to Improve Sleep
- Stick to a sleep schedule of the same bedtime and wake up time, even on the weekends. This helps to regulate your body’s clock and could help you fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.
- Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual. A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime conducted away from bright lights helps separate your sleep time from activities that can cause excitement, stress, or anxiety.
- If you have trouble sleeping, avoid naps, especially in the afternoon. Power napping may help you get through the day, but if you find that you can’t fall asleep at bedtime, eliminating even short catnaps may help.
- Exercise daily. Vigorous exercise is best, but even light exercise is better than no activity. Exercise at any time of day, but not at the expense of your sleep.
- Evaluate your room. Your bedroom should be cool – between 60 and 67 degrees. Check your room for noises, or other distractions. This includes a bed partner’s sleep disruptions, such as snoring. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, “white noise” machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices.
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. The one you have been using for years may have exceeded its life expectancy – about nine or 10 years for most good quality mattresses.
- Use bright light to help manage your circadian rhythms. Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning. This will keep your circadian rhythms in check.
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals in the evening. Alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine can disrupt sleep. Eating big or spicy meals can cause discomfort from indigestion that can make it hard to sleep. If you can, avoid eating large meals for two- to three-hours before bedtime. Try a light snack 45 minutes before bed if you’re still hungry.
- Wind down. Your body needs time to shift into sleep mode, so spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity, such as reading. For some people, using an electronic device can make it hard to fall asleep. If you have trouble sleeping, avoid electronics before bed or in the middle of the night.
- If you can’t sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired. It is best to take work materials, computers and televisions out of the sleeping environment. Use your bed only for sleep and sex to strengthen the association between bed and sleep.
- If you’re still having trouble sleeping, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor, or to find a sleep professional. You may also benefit from recording your sleep in a sleep diary to help you better evaluate common patterns or issues you may see with your sleep or sleeping habits.