Sleep Issues and Aging

Did you know that as you age, your sleep patterns change?  We often experience normal changes in our sleeping patterns, such as becoming sleepy earlier, waking up earlier, or experiencing less deep sleep. However, disturbed sleep, waking up tired every day, and other symptoms of insomnia are not a normal part of aging. Sleep is just as important to your physical and emotional health as it was when you were younger.

As we age, our bodies produce lower levels of growth hormone, leading to a decrease in slow wave or deep sleep (an especially refreshing part of the sleep cycle). When this happens, we produce less melatonin, meaning more fragmented sleep and waking up more often during the night. That’s why many of us consider ourselves “light sleepers” the older we get. Other changes in sleep include:

  • Want to go to sleep earlier in the evening.
  • Waking up earlier in the morning.
  • Having to spend longer in bed at night to get the hours of sleep needed or make up the shortfall by taking a nap during the day.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep.
  • Having insomnia, which is a condition that makes it hard to fall asleep and/or stay asleep.

Conditions that commonly affect sleep in older people include depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, and conditions that cause discomfort and pain, such as arthritis.

The relationship between physical health and sleep is complicated by the fact that many older adults are diagnosed with more than one health condition. In fact, the 2003 National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America Poll looked at 11 common health conditions and found that 24% of people between 65 and 84 years old reported being diagnosed with four or more health conditions. Those with multiple health conditions were more likely to report getting less than six hours of sleep, having poor sleep quality, and experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder.

Sleep issues may also be related to the side effects of medications including over the counter and prescription drugs. For example, antihistamines and opiates may cause daytime drowsiness, while medications such as antidepressants and corticosteroids may keep older people awake and contribute to the symptoms of insomnia. The interactions of multiple medications may cause unanticipated effects on sleep. Ask your doctor if any of your medicines could be keeping you awake at night. Some health conditions can even cause sleep problems as well.

If your sleep-wake cycle has changed, here are some tips to make sure you get enough, quality sleep:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even on the weekends.
  • Do not take naps longer than about 20 minutes.
  • Do not read, watch TV, or eat in bed. Only use your bedroom for sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine for about 8 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid nicotine and alcohol in the evening. Alcohol might help you fall asleep, but it can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Do not lie in bed for a long time trying to go to sleep. After 30 minutes of trying to sleep, get up and go to a different room. Do something quiet, such as reading or listening to music. Do not do anything that stimulates your brain. Then, go back to bed and try to fall asleep.
  • Try to be active each day. Exercise can help you sleep better.

Everyone is different, so it may take some experimentation to find the specific changes that work best to improve your sleep. As always, if you have questions or are worried you aren’t getting enough sleep, consult your doctor or health care professions.

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