Many people believe that seniors need less sleep than younger people. In fact, most people need about the same amount of sleep time in their senior years as they did as young adults, although there is some variation in the exact number of hours. Sleep studies vary some, but the consensus is that from 7 to 8 hours of sleep time is the healthy norm for adults. For a variety of reasons, many seniors get less sleep than they need and this can have serious consequences.
Sleep deprivation in seniors can be debilitating, and it may be more common than it is in younger people. Health issues, anxiety and some medications can all be involved as well as changes in normal sleep patterns that some seniors try to ignore. As adults age, it is normal for the body’s internal clock to alter, resetting to earlier wakening and falling asleep times. If the senior attempts to continue the late-night habits of younger years, sleep deprivation is often the result.
Sleep problems may affect as many as 40% of all seniors. Common complaints are daytime fatigue, frequent awakening, early morning awakening and ‘light or unsatisfying sleep’ (probably a lack of stage 3 or “deep sleep”). As a senior yourself, or as a family member involved in senior home care, you should be aware of sleep patterns. In-home senior care professionals and staff members at senior assisted living facilities should also watch for signs of sleep deprivation. If you or a senior loved one is not getting enough sleep, the situation should be investigated to determine the cause and to take corrective action.
Here are some common causes and possible remedies.
Adjust the sleep/wake cycle. As mentioned above, the human body seems to reset its internal clock as we age, causing a normal shift to earlier bed time and awakening. If a senior fights this normal shift by trying to see the late, late show, it can result in poor sleep. Try to set a regular routine of waking and going to bed at roughly the same time each day. During daytime hours, get as much exercise as advisable for your physical condition.
Loved ones and senior in-home care workers should also help develop a nighttime routine that doesn’t encourage worry or anxiety. Avoid mentally taxing or emotionally upsetting tasks after dinner. These activities can make it hard for anyone to sleep.
Try to limit napping. When seniors nap during the day, encourage them to limit this to 30 minutes and to do it in the early afternoon.
Regulate exposure to natural and artificial light. Get some sun. Whatever your age, daylight is important because it helps to regulate the sleep/wake cycle. If you cannot go outside, try to spend as much time as possible near sunlight from a window or other source. It is equally important to avoid excess exposure to some of the artificial light sources in TVs, smart phones or laptops. Scientists have found that the wave length emitted by these screens stimulate the brain, telling it, “time to get up.” If possible, avoid these light sources for an hour before bed time.
Microsoft, the biggest maker of computer operating systems has “seen the light” on this subject. Its newest operating system, Widows 10, has a night time setting. Here is a quote from the Microsoft 10 instructions-
“Set your display for night time in Windows 10. Your display emits blue light—the kind of light you see during the day—which can keep you up at night. To help you get to sleep, turn on night light and your display will show warmer colors at night that are easier on your eyes.”
Fix any problems in the sleeping environment. Sleep experts recommend that people of all ages should go to bed in a quiet, darkened room. Loved ones and senior home care providers sometimes have difficulty with this because they want at least some light if the senior gets up during the night. Each situation is going to be different, but some reasonable compromise must be made. Almost all sleep authorities recommend against going to bed with a television, smart phone or computer screen turned on. Many people find reading a good way to relax before sleeping. If this is true for you, do your reading from a book or other printed material.
Stay as active as possible. One study compared 53 physically active seniors to 48 who did not exercise. The results were what you might expect: the exercisers slept an average of 50 minutes more each night. They also rated their sleep quality as better than that of the inactive group. A brisk walk each day can make a big difference, so in-home senior care and senior assisted living professionals should do their best to encourage physical activity.
When these simple steps fail, it may be time to talk to your doctor. He or she may do tests to determine if a true sleep disorder is present and what can be done to correct it. Most sleep experts now caution against the use of sleep-inducing medications, using them only as a last resort and usually for a short time. However, other medications commonly used in seniors can be affecting sleep.
Diuretics, often used in people with hypertension or congestive heart failure, cause a need to urinate frequently in the night if taken too late. Beta blockers, another class of hypertension and heart medication may cause insomnia in some people. Several other types of medication may interrupt sleep patterns and the physician might want to change the dose or stop the medicine. Most people do not think of caffeine, smoking, and alcohol as drugs, but they definitely can make sleep difficult. Use of these substances should be limited, especially for several hours before bedtime.
Pain or discomfort from arthritis and other diseases can also be denying proper sleep. If so, this should be treated by a doctor. More and more non-traditional ways to improve sleep are being advocated, often by physicians. These may include biofeedback, meditation, yoga and mental exercise or ‘mind games.’