Healthy Sleep and Aging
As people age, numerous lifestyle factors affect sleep patterns. Truthfully, dramatic changes in sleep occur in older people, often the result of a lifestyle change (such as retirement) or medical condition. Retirement often encourages unhealthy sleeping habits, such as daytime napping, irregular schedule, minimal exercise, and unhealthy diet.
Retirement means being free to sleep whenever you want but insomnia can actually be dangerous. Poor sleep causes daytime drowsiness and an inability to concentrate, making seniors more vulnerable to accidents and chronic pain. A lack of sleep also places significant strain on the immune and cardiovascular systems, making seniors at a higher risk for illness and disease.
Common Issues with Sleep
Interesting, nearly half of adults over the age of 60 struggle with insomnia. Many older adults report difficulty falling asleep, waking up through the night, and feeling groggy or drowsy during the day. It’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of insomnia in older adults; however here are a few theories:
- Changing Sleep Architecture – “Sleep architecture” refers to the progression of sleep in various stages: light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid eye-movement (REM) sleep. These phases change roughly every 90-120 minutes. Older adults appear to experience less deep sleep and more light sleep while REM sleep declines 10 minutes for every decade alive.
- Thermoregulation – Some believe that sleep problems are associated with the body’s ability to control and maintain internal core temperature. Lower body temperatures cause sleepiness while higher temperatures result in feelings of alertness. When body temperature is out of sync with sleep rhythms, insomnia and restlessness is often the result.
- Chronic Illness – Insomnia can also be result of a number of conditions, including: Parkinson’s disease, cancer, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory issues, or problems associated with the prostate and bladder. Sleep problems may also be exacerbated by memory loss, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
- Emotional or Psychiatric Issues- A change in emotions or behaviors can also result in sleep problems. Insomnia is commonly associated with depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, and other psychiatric conditions.
- Lifestyle Decisions – Insomnia can also be result of poor lifestyle choices, such as bad eating, exercise, or sleeping habits. Diets high in fat, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol have shown to negatively affect sleep. A lack of exercise has also shown to decrease quality sleeping.
- Other Conditions – Other issues that may affect sleep in older adults include: sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, snoring, and REM sleep behavior disorder. Talk with your doctor or a sleep expert if you’re concerned about any of these conditions.
How to Improve Sleep
Treating sleep problems in older adults requires special attention, including medical advice and personalized planning. Each person experiences problems differently and the causes may not be easy to identify. Often treatments and techniques depending on important factors: other conditions, medication interactions, and overall quality of health. Make sure to take these into consideration as you explore your options:
- Make a permanent sleep schedule. Going to bed and rising at the same times is important, even on holidays and weekends.
- Stay active throughout the day. Try rotating physical exercise with household tasks to avoid daytime naps and stay active, both in body and mind. Make sure to stop exercise at least 3 hours before bed.
- Get some sunlight. Exposure to sunlight and vitamin D has shown to significantly help insomnia.
- Don’t drink before bed. Alcohol and caffeine disrupt the sleep cycle; avoid all drinks before bed to prevent bathroom breaks from disrupting sleep.
- Redecorate if need be. Sleeping areas should be relatively dark with good ventilation and minimal sound.
- Avoid other activities in bed. Commit your bed to sleep only by avoid eating, watching TV, or distractions. If you find yourself unable to sleep after 30 minutes, get up and only return once you feel sleepy.
Managing you sleep can be difficult as you get older. Without work or family schedules, maintaining a predictable sleep schedule requires more effort. There is a number of sleep resources out there that can help you find something that works for you. Remember: just because you can sleep whenever you want doesn’t mean you should. Good quality sleep can be the difference between a good life and a perfect one.
We would like to offer a special thanks to Tuck: A Community for Advancing Better Sleep. Tuck is an excellent resource site for any issues related to sleep and had provided essential information to help seniors and dementia patients alike gain access to better quality sleep.
The information provided on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material found on this website is intended to promote and encourage consumer understanding and should not be considered alternative or supplementary medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health or physical condition, seek the advice of a licensed qualified healthcare provider. Be sure to discuss any changes or concerns with your doctor before beginning a new healthcare regimen, undergoing any procedures, or changing current healthcare plans. Seniors and Health does not claim medical representation and assumes no responsibility in the accuracy of the information available on this website.
About the Author: Victoria K. Stickley is a copywriter, editor, and senior content manager based in the Dallas area. Her graduate education in counseling and research has helped immensely in her writing as well as the care she provides for her grandparents. She currently provides support and resources to senior care websites as she learns and experiences senior care first-hand.