Better Sleep for Seniors

Senior having trouble sleeping

It is not uncommon to experience changing sleep patterns as we age. Natural as these changes are, they can cause concern for many seniors. A study conducted at the University of Washington found that 40% of all seniors reported some type of sleep problem, including very light sleep, frequent awakening, and daytime fatigue or sleepiness. Age also brings a decrease in the deep-sleep stage of sleeping, where the body performs many important physiological functions. Even seniors who did not report sleep difficulties were determined to have changes in sleep patterns when they were monitored in sleep laboratories.

What does a “good night’s sleep” really mean? There is a normal variation of sleep requirements among people of all ages, but most healthy adults need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. The best measure for yourself is probably how you feel in the morning, not some arbitrary number of hours. If you routinely wake up feeling poorly rested, or feel tired during the day, it is a good bet that you are not sleeping enough.

If you think you may have a serious sleep disorder like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, this should be evaluated by a doctor. However, most sleep disorders seen in seniors are the normal changes that come with years. Severe sleep disturbances may require medications, but these drugs are not a long-term solution for most people, and they can cause serious side effects, including addiction. Unfortunately, many seniors who report poor sleeping symptoms to doctors are placed on a prescription drug. Instead, sleep experts recommend a “sleep hygiene” routine that involves non-drug measures. Often these are just common sense, good-health practices for people of all ages.

Getting a good night’s sleep should start with good daytime practices and habits. The term “sleep hygiene” refers to all of the activities that contribute to getting a good rest, even daytime activities. Diet and exercise habits throughout the day have a big effect on sleep quality. Numerous studies have noted the sleep benefits of regular exercise. This does not have to mean heavy workouts; a good walk will help, but if there is no reason to prevent it, aerobic exercise seems to be one of the best sleep aids.

Exercise is a good way to reduce stress, and if you can get outside, exposure to sunlight will stimulate production of the hormone, melatonin. Melatonin helps to maintain a proper sleep-wake cycle. If your physical condition permits, activities like swimming, dancing, cycling, group walking, golf, or tennis are beneficial. They get you outside, help reduce stress, and present opportunities for social interaction. Lack of social interaction and elevated stress have been identified as causes of sleep disorders.

A good way to start is to identify the possible causes of sleep difficulty. Do you feel stressed, depressed, or have anxiety? Do you have any medical conditions like arthritis or muscle pain that make sleep more difficult? See if your doctor can help relieve these “sleep blockers.” Seniors often take more drugs than younger people and they metabolize them differently. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of your medications could be causing sleep difficulties. What about your use of alcohol and tobacco? Alcohol may seem to make you sleepy, but it actually disrupts healthy sleep patterns.

An obvious culprit of sleep difficulty is caffeine. Limit overall caffeine intake, especially after 2 or 3 PM.  That means soda, tea, and chocolate as well as coffee. It is a good idea to substitute caffeine-free products all day long if possible. High-sugar foods and refined carbohydrates like pasta may cause wakefulness and shorten the periods of deep sleep, so try to avoid them in the evening.

On the other hand, you do not want to have feelings of hunger when you try to sleep. Eat a moderate-size meal for dinner 3 hours or more before bedtime, and if you are still hungry, eat a lite snack like yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese at bedtime. Limit the volume of fluids you consume for the two hours before sleeping to minimize bathroom use during the night.

Changing these habits and your sleep environment may help more than you expect-

  • After dinner, do not read from a back-lit device like a tablet or laptop. The wavelength of light emitted from these devices stimulates the brain, telling it to “wake up.”
  • Give a boost to melatonin production by getting as much sunlight as possible. Artificial light suppresses melatonin levels, so use low-wattage bulbs were safe.
  • Associate your bedroom with sleep, not entertainment or work. Remove televisions, computer screens, etc.
  • Make the bedroom environment conducive to sleep. It should be cool, dark, and quiet. Use earplugs, a sound machine, or a face mask to shut out unwanted stimuli. Your brain should come to associate that room with sleep, not a TV late show. If a show you just have to watch comes on after your bedtime, find some way to watch it “on demand.”
  • Establish a routine bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends. Going to bed later or getting up earlier should be an exceptional event.
  • If your spouse or partner snores or is restless in bed, go to a different room.
  • Start a “power-down” routine before bedtime. This may involve soothing music, reading a book, a warm bath, meditation, prayer, whatever you find calming and relaxing.
  • Be cautious with over-the-counter “sleep aids.” Even non-prescription drugs can confuse your natural sleep-waking cycle. Of course, if you continue to have trouble, talk to your doctor.

Thanks for reading the OurSeniors.Net website, Facebook page, and blog. Now, have a pleasant, active day and get a good night’s sleep, so we can see you tomorrow.