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Seniors and Sleep: How much do they need?

If you or your loved one is over age 65, it's likely that getting enough sleep has become an issue. Seniors typically take longer to fall asleep, and often wake up during the night numerous times. These are two main reasons many seniors don't get as much sleep as they need. In fact according to an article on www.agingcare.com, studies of adults over 65 indicated 13% of men, and 36%of women need more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.

Why do seniors have more trouble sleeping?

Several factors contribute to difficulty sleeping as one ages. Dr. Lim Li Ling, a consultant neurologist for the Singapore Neurology & Sleep Centers at Gleneagles Medical Centre, offered these as the most common reasons:

The natural aging process. As we age, our bodies make less of the chemicals and hormones that help us sleep well, such as Melatonin. Some seniors develop sensitivity to environmental factors affecting sleep such as noise.

An increase in neurological and other medical conditions. The parts of the brain that control sleep are affected by conditions such as Parkinson's disease or stroke. Arthritis can also play a role in sleep quality due to chronic pain. Additionally, Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) causes one to kick involuntarily during sleep, and that contributes to daytime sleepiness.

The effects of medication. The medications that treat conditions associated with aging, and the fact that seniors are more likely to be on multiple medications, interfere with the duration and quality of sleep.

A higher prevalence of sleep disorders. In this case, Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is the most common. OSA causes blockage in the upper air passage during sleep. Two additional sleep conditions that contribute to seniors getting less sleep are Restless Leg Syndrome and Insomnia. For men, prostate conditions cause the need to urinate frequently throughout the night.

Mood factors such as anxiety and depression. Most seniors are affected to varying degrees by the loss of loved ones, spouses and close friends. Also, as seniors face retirement and other significant life changing events, they are more likely to have trouble sleeping.

The dangers of inadequate sleep

It's when we are sleeping that our bodies regenerate cells and clean our blood by circulating it through the liver. The need for sleep is as basic as that for water and food. Many people think it's OK to go without sleep--to 'power through' the day anyway. But doctors warn that, just because you've gone without enough sleep for a big part of your adult life, doesn't mean it won't impact you as you get older. 

Senior adults are already prone to some illnesses, as well as falls, accidents and balance deficiencies. Not getting enough sleep just increases all these risks. There is compelling research that indicates too little sleep contributes to an increased appetite and weight gain.

While many senior adults do struggle with depression and anxiety, those without these conditions are more prone to developing them if they don't get enough sleep.

How much sleep do seniors need?

There are differing theories in answer to this question. Much data, including information from the National Institutes on Health, suggests seniors can remain healthy with less sleep than the general population. For example while the average amount of required sleep is about seven to nine hours nightly, some sleep experts say a bit less than that--maybe about 7 and a half hours on average--is adequate for seniors.

Other experts report that seniors need as much sleep as they always have to function at their best. Either way, experts typically agree on three things: first, most seniors are sleep deprived; second, the sleep cycles of aging adults change; and third, the best indicator of achieving enough sleep is how one feels during the day.

According to an article written by Jennifer Dixon for WebMD, older adults slip into what is called an advanced sleep phase. When this happens the body's natural 'clock' desires both earlier bed and wake times. Seniors who have always been 'night owls' and keep their same sleep habits, may be at risk of sleep deprivation and all the health risks associated with it.

As we age, we tend to get less 'deep sleep,' according to an article for EverydayHealth.com, reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH. Additionally, Ling said it's more common for senior adults to spread their sleep out over a 24-hours period, sleeping 4-5 hours per night and taking additional naps during the day. Ling believes this habit is perfectly fine as long as the total amount of sleep is adequate.

Ling also warns that seniors should not accept a lack of proper rest and daytime sleepiness as a normal process of aging. If you or your loved one has experienced trouble sleeping for more than two weeks, a trip to the doctor is warranted.

Take steps to support healthy sleep

Doctors suggest numerous ways to help seniors get enough sleep, and many apply to people of all ages: avoid caffeine close to bedtime, avoid large meals near bedtime, and rise and go to bed at the same time every day.

EverydayHealth.com advises these additional habits to help foster adequate sleep:

  • Make sure you are healthy, and all your medical conditions are diagnosed and treated.
  • Exercise early in the day.
  • If you can't sleep, don't just lie in bed. Get up and do something relaxing such as reading or listening to music.

Many people who have trouble sleeping also turn to natural remedies such as Melatonin and Valerian Root. Always check with your doctor before trying a natural sleep remedy.

REFERENCES
The editors of LivingSenior.com
"How Much Sleep do Seniors Need?" Reviewed for EverydayHealth.com by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH. 
The editors of AgelessOnline.com
"How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?" by the editors of the National Sleep Foundation for SleepFoundation.org
"Natural Herbs to Help the Elderly Sleep at Night," by Damon Verial, eHow contributor, and "Elderly Sleep Disorders," by Jessica Lietz, eHow contributor
The editors of WebMD.com
"Sleep Changes in Older Adults," by the editors of FamilyDoctor.org

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