As we age we often experience normal changes in our sleeping patterns. We may become sleepy earlier, wake up earlier, or enjoy less deep sleep. Although these changes are a normal part of aging, 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 our physical and emotional health over the age of 50 as it was when we were younger. Below are a few tips that can help you overcome age-related sleep problems and get a good night’s rest.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP FOR OLDER ADULTS
No matter what your age, sleeping well is essential to your physical health and emotional well-being. For older adults, a good night’s sleep is especially important because it helps improve concentration and memory formation, allows your body to repair any cell damage that occurred during the day, and refreshes your immune system, which in turn helps to prevent disease.
Many physicians consider sleep to be a barometer of a person’s health, like taking his or her temperature. Older adults who don’t sleep well are more likely to suffer from depression, attention and memory problems, and excessive daytime sleepiness. They are likely to suffer more nighttime falls, have increased sensitivity to pain, and use more prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids. Insufficient sleep can also lead to many serious health problems in older adults, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight problems, and breast cancer in women.
Tip #1: Understand how sleep changes as you age
As you age your body produces lower levels of growth hormone, so you’ll likely experience a decrease in slow wave or deep sleep. When this happens you produce less melatonin, meaning you’ll often experience more fragmented sleep (more rapid sleep cycles) and wake up more often during the night. As your circadian rhythm (the internal clock that tells you when to sleep and when to wake up) changes, you may also find yourself wanting to go to sleep earlier in the evening and waking up earlier in the morning.
As you age, you may have to spend longer in bed at night to get the hours of sleep you need, or you may have to make up the shortfall by taking a nap during the day. In most cases, such sleep changes are normal and don’t indicate a sleep problem.
Tip #2: Identify underlying problems
Many cases of insomnia are caused by underlying but very treatable causes.While emotional issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression can cause insomnia, the most common causes in adults over 50 are a poor sleep environment and poor sleep and daytime habits. Try to identify all possible causes of your insomnia so you can tailor treatment accordingly.
- Are you under a lot of stress?
- Are you depressed? Do you feel emotionally flat or hopeless?
- Do you struggle with chronic feelings of anxiety or worry?
- Are you taking any medications that might be affecting your sleep?
- Do you have any health problems that may be interfering with sleep?
Common causes of sleep problems in older adults
- Poor sleep habits and sleep environment.
- Pain or medical illness.
- Lack of exercise.
- Psychological stress or psychological disorders.
- Sleep disorders.
- Learned response.
Tip #3: Improve sleep habits
Poor sleep habits, including a poor sleep environment and poor daytime habits, can be the main causes of sleep problems and low-quality sleep. In many cases, older adults develop these poor sleep habits over a lifetime but find they create more and more problems as they age. Fortunately, these habits are easy to improve.
Improve daytime habits for better sleep
- Be engaged.
- Improve your mood.
- Exercise regularly.
- Expose yourself to sunlight.
- Limit caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
Encourage better sleep at night
Naturally boost your melatonin levels.
Don’t read from a backlit device at night (such as an iPad).
Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool, and your bed is comfortable.
Tip #4: Talk to your doctor about sleep problems
If your own attempts to solve your sleep problems are unsuccessful, your doctor may be able to help with sleep problems due to:
- A sleep disorder
- Medication side effects or interactions
- Medical conditions or illnesses
Bring a sleep diary with you. Write down when you use alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, and keep track of your medications, exercise, lifestyle changes, and recent stresses. Your doctor may then refer you to a sleep specialist for further treatment.