How aging changes sleep and what you can do about it
Sleep patterns change with age, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important for seniors to get a good night’s rest.
How sleep changes with age
Older adults tend to have a harder time falling and staying asleep than they did when they were younger, and insomnia is very common. A National Sleep Foundation (NSF) poll found 44 percent of older adults experience one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week.
A common mistake is to assume because seniors sleep less, they need less sleep than younger adults. This isn’t true. A person’s sleep actually needs to stay fairly constant throughout his or her life; the NSF recommends 7-9 hours a night for adults of all ages.
Daytime energy levels are a good indicator for sleep quality and quantity: if a person feels well rested during the day, they’re probably getting enough sleep. But excessive daytime sleepiness could mean a lack of quality sleep, which can lead to – and indicate – more serious problems.
Causes of sleep changes in the elderly
A stressful event or change in living situation may temporarily disrupt sleep, but shouldn’t cause permanent changes. Chronic trouble sleeping could stem from an underlying problem, such as anxiety, depression, physical discomfort, menopause, changes in daily routine, chronic illness, or obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
When trouble sleeping persists for a long stretch, it’s time to seek professional help. In the weeks leading up to the appointment, it helps to keep a record of sleep, wakefulness, and fatigue patterns, as well as any other notes that may help a doctor understand and treat the problem.
Treatments for sleep
Treatment for sleep includes behavioral or pharmaceutical therapy. According to the NSF, behavioral techniques may include:
- Exercising in the afternoon.
- Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine 3-4 hours before bed.
- Avoiding alcohol later in the evening.
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.
- Using the bed for sleep and intimacy only—if sleep doesn’t happen after 20 minutes, get out of bed and try a light activity, such as reading or listening to music, before laying down again.
- Adjusting or skipping naps.
A study by the NSF found aerobic exercise – especially in the afternoon – is one of the best ways to improve chronic insomnia in elderly patients. Aerobic exercise can also alleviate symptoms of depression and help seniors feel more energetic throughout the day.
Medicine is used primarily to address underlying causes like anxiety or depression. Sleep medications should only be used under a doctor’s supervision and guidance, as they can cause dependence, addiction, and other negative side effects.
Visit the following online resources for more information about aging and sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation – Aging and Sleep
The National Sleep Foundation – Aging and Sleep/Coping
The National Library of Medicine/National Institute of Health – Aging Changes in Sleep
WebMD – Aging and Sleep
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