Kim Elliott, RN, Expert on Healthy Aging

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13 March 2017

sleep better as you age

“What wouldn’t I give for a good night’s rest?”

If you’re like me, you’ve said this at least once and maybe more.  And as we age, sleeping problems and sleep disorders become more common. According to a 2003 poll done by the National Sleep Foundation, 44 percent of older adults regularly experience some insomnia. It usually takes longer to get to sleep, more time is spent in the lighter stages than in the deepest (and most restorative) stages, and it’s harder to sleep for one long stretch.

For seniors, the consequences can sometimes be devastating – they are so drowsy in the day that they end up crashing their car or taking a life-altering fall. Generally though, sleep deprivation shows up in other subtler ways: through depressions, forgetfulness or problems focusing. Sleep impairment can also lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and breast cancer.  

How Aging Affects Sleep

Chronic medical problems are partly to blame for the decline in sleep. For instance, hypertension is associated with both snoring and sleep apnea. Other conditions that interfere include a frequent need to urinate, chronic pain, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In addition, many menopausal and post-menopausal women experience symptoms such as hot flashes that wake them up in the middle of the night. Finally, older people tend to take a lot of medication, and the combinations of drugs, as well as their side effects, can impair sleep.

Managing Sleep Problems
The first step in trying to improve your sleep is talking with your doctor, who can review your medications and come up with a treatment plan which may include a referral to a sleep specialist. Sleep medication can help manage short-term insomnia but it shouldn’t be the first line of treatment unless you have a true sleep disorder, such as restless legs syndrome. Keep in mind that over-the-counter sleep medications can have harsh side effects for seniors such as dizziness, difficulty with balance and daytime drowsiness. They can also be habit-forming. 

No matter what type of sleep issue you have, make it a point to work on your sleep hygiene. Start off by creating a consistent sleep schedule as well as a regular bedtime routine that includes relaxing activities like deep breathing or taking a bath. Also, ensure your bedroom is quiet, cool and dark. (A sleep mask can help block out light while ear plugs or a white noise machine can block out sounds like snoring.)

On top of this, turn off the TV and computer at least one hour before bed to try to boost your melatonin levels – some seniors are low on this natural hormone that lets the body and brain know when it is time to sleep. Because bright sunlight is known to help regulate melatonin, aim to get at least two hours of sunlight a day. If you can’t get outdoors, keep curtains open during the day or use a light therapy box. Some people take melatonin supplements, but be aware that the effects haven’t been well-studied.

Short naps might also help, but make sure to take your siestas early in the day so that they don’t interfere with your nighttime sleep. Other daytime habits to consider include:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Avoiding big meals or spicy food before bedtime (a light snack is okay)
  • Limiting the amount of caffeine you consume
  • Avoiding alcohol before bedtime
  • Cutting down on fluids in the evenings
  • Partaking in regular aerobic exercise
  • Finding a support group or a counselor if you feel depressed or emotionally  stressed  

Despite the sleep challenges that older adults face, chronic insomnia and daytime sleepiness are not an inevitable consequence of aging. Too many sleep problems in older adults go undiagnosed and untreated simply because people have the misconception that nothing can be done. Here’s wishing you a good night’s rest and sweet dreams!


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