Senior Years, Sleepless Nights?
3 min. read
People often say “I slept like a baby” to describe a good night’s sleep. That’s because newborns sleep 16 to 20 hours a day and seemingly can sleep through anything. As we grow older, however, the amount of time we spend sleeping each day decreases and, for many people, the quality of sleep also declines. The National Institutes of Health estimates 30 percent of adults complain of sleep disruption and 50 percent of elderly adults have difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep.
“Although sleep disorders are common, they often go undiagnosed and untreated,” said Edward Mezerhane, M.D, an adult and pediatric sleep medicine specialist affiliated with Baptist Health.
“Recently, however, scientific data has propelled the healthcare system to be more proactive about diagnosing and treating patients with sleep disorders.”
A recent study helps explain why the elderly suffer disproportionately from chronic sleep issues. Researchers found that a group of inhibitory neurons in the brain that are essential for a prolonged and undisturbed sleep decrease with age. The findings suggest that the decline in these neurons has a direct correlation with sleep disruptions experienced by older adults.
“As people age, it’s often the N3 or stage 3 sleep that diminishes. This is the vital, deep sleep that the body needs to restore itself,” Dr. Mezerhane explained.
Although the results of this study may strengthen the common belief that sleep problems are a normal part of aging, Dr. Mezerhane advises people to not ignore sleep issues and take steps to improve their sleep by addressing factors they can control.
Sleep and Illness
He warns that going without sufficient sleep has both short- and long-term consequences. In the short term, lack of sleep can affect judgment, mood, cognitive ability and may increase the risk of accidents and injury. In the long term, recurring sleep deprivation may lead to health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even early mortality, reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s important to determine the underlying causes of sleep disruption, which may include medical conditions, poor sleep hygiene or other lifestyle habits,” Dr. Mezerhane said. “Treating medical disorders and addressing other issues can dramatically improve your sleep – and your overall health.”
Insomnia and disrupted sleep in older people are a common side effect caused by medical conditions such as arthritis, congestive heart failure, heartburn, hyperthyroidism, restless leg syndrome, prostate and bladder issues, sleep apnea, obesity and depression. Medications, changes in lifestyle after retirement and having a spouse who snores also can cause sleep problems.
Healthy Sleep Habits
Poor sleep hygiene also can cause sleep problems; while good habits can help balance biological factors that make it harder to attain healthy sleep as we grow older. To get a good night’s rest, the National Sleep Foundation recommends following these healthy sleep hygiene tips:
- Maintain a stable bedtime and waking schedule.
- Exercise regularly, and early in the day.
- Avoid eating or drinking right before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol close to bedtime.
- Increase exposure to natural light during the day to help maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
- Boost melatonin production at night by dimming lights and turning off your television and computer.
- Avoid long naps and napping after 3 p.m.
- Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine, which may include taking a warm bath, reading or listening to calming music.
- Use your bedroom only for sleep. It may help to remove work materials, computers and televisions from your bedroom.
- Create a good sleep environment – one that is quiet, dark and cool with a comfortable mattress and pillows.
Although many problems with sleep can be resolved through changes in lifestyle or in the sleep environment, sometimes a change in behavior is not enough. If you are having consistent sleep issues, consult a sleep specialist, Dr. Mezerhane recommends. A sleep specialist may conduct a sleep study to help identify and treat sleep disorders that prevent you from getting healthy, regular sleep.
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