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Senior Citizen's Guide

Sleep as You Grow Older

No matter how healthy or fit you are, you can't stop your body from aging. As you age, you may find that it is much harder to get a good night of sleep. You also may take more naps. These are common changes that you can expect as you age.

There are also many sleep disorders that are more common in older people. Although these problems are common, they often go untreated. To maintain good health, it is important that you know more about the problems that prevent you from getting sleep.

I. What Causes Problems with Sleep as You Age?

It is common for people over the age of 65 to have problems with their sleep. Insomnia is their most frequent complaint. Insomnia is when you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early. In general, it may result in a quality of sleep that is not as refreshing as it should be. The causes of insomnia in older people include the following:

  • Alcohol use
  • Medical illness
  • Depression
  • Medication use
  • Loss of a loved one

Many causes of sleep problems are only temporary. For example, an operation or a hospital stay may disturb your sleep for a period of time. Other problems may be long lasting.

II. What Sleep Disorders Are Common as You Age?

Talk to your doctor if any of these disorders seem to describe your sleep problem:

 

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

Occurs when the tissue in the back of the throat collapses and blocks your airway during sleep. This keeps air from getting to the lungs. It affects an estimated one in four people over the age of 60. The primary signs of OSA are daytime sleepiness and loud, frequent snoring.

Central sleep apnea (CSA)

Occurs when the brain fails to tell the lungs to breathe. As this signal is lost, the lungs do not take in the oxygen that your body needs. People with CSA may sigh frequently or appear to have shallow breathing as they sleep. CSA is most common in older people and in patients with heart disease. It can also occur as a result of a stroke.

Advanced sleep phase disorder (ASP)

Occurs when your internal body clock is "set" too early. This causes you to fall asleep between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. As a result, you wake up earlier than you would like. You may be alert and unable to go back to sleep between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD)

Occurs when you have episodes of simple, repetitive muscle movements. They tend to involve the tightening or flexing of a muscle. An episode will normally last from a few minutes to an hour. These movements can disrupt your sleep during the night.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

Causes a weird, prickling urge to move your legs. Lying or sitting still can be very hard. Temporary relief is found when you walk or move the legs. RLS makes it difficult for you to go to sleep.

III. What Can You Do to Improve Your Sleep?

You can often sleep better by making simple changes to your sleep habits. These are some of the tips that can help improve your sleep:

  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day.

  • Keep a regular exercise routine. This can be as simple as walking or gardening. For the best sleep results, do not exercise within six hours of your bedtime. Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.

  • Try to enjoy some bright sunlight in the afternoon and evening. Even if you are inside, open the curtains or blinds to let in a lot of light. The key is for your eyes to see the light. Your skin does not need to be exposed to the sunlight. Your eyes send the signals that your brain uses to set your body clock.

  • If you take a nap during the day, try to sleep for less than an hour. Your naps should also occur before 3 p.m. Napping longer or later may cause you to have a hard time falling asleep at night.

  • You should not have any alcohol within six hours of your bedtime, and you should not have any caffeine after lunch.

  • Always talk to your doctor before using sleeping pills to improve your sleep.

IV. How Can You Get Help for Your Sleep?

You should talk to your doctor if you have not been able to sleep well for a month or longer. You may have a sleep disorder if your problem has a negative effect on your daily life. Your doctor may decide that you need to see a sleep specialist. If the specialist suspects that you have a sleep disorder, then he or she may ask you to do an overnight sleep study.

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