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Battling Sleep Changes As We Age

As we age, we often experience normal changes in our sleeping patterns.  But disturbed sleep, waking up tired every day, and other symptoms of insomnia are not a normal part of aging. Why does sleep change as we age and what is normal?

It's important for caregivers to understand that even the healthiest seniors find that their sleep habits change.  At any age, insomnia is the most common sleep complaint, but for adults over the age of 65 even more so.  In fact, one out of every four senior adults reports symptoms of poor sleep.  And while a good many seniors may feel like insomniacs, some of the symptoms that they experience are because in reality, as we age we don't 'sleep like we used to.' 

What are some of the normal sleep changes that seniors experience?  For one, aging adults feel sleepy earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning.  Changes in our circadian rhythm, the internal body clock that regulates sleep and waking, are responsible for this change in sleep pattern called advanced sleep phase syndrome.  Also quite normally, the older we get the more likely we are to become 'light sleepers.'  Physiologically, our aging bodies produce lower levels of the growth hormone melatonin which is the cause for a decrease in deep sleep.  Not only do we spend less time in deeper sleep cycles, but we spend less time sleeping on the whole - about half an hour less on average.  Healthy older people tend to awake during the night, too, so that on any given night, an older person sleeps 15 percent less than someone younger.  And it generally takes longer for seniors to fall asleep. 

Regardless, sleeping well is especially important for the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of your senior loved one.  Caregivers of seniors should know that while changes such as these take some getting used to, they don't mean that your senior should spend the night tossing and turning and not getting a good night's sleep.  So how do increase his or her chances of getting a good night's sleep when these normal changes are impacting the senior in your care?

Most cases of so called insomnia in elderly people can be remedied with some common sense solutions.  If your senior's sleep issues are not the result of more serious health conditions such as sleep apnea, RLS (restless leg syndrome), depression, heartburn, arthritis or the side effects of various medications that he or she may take -- all which require intervention of a medical professional for treatment -- here are a few helpful sleep tips to follow. 

  • Make sure your senior follows a regular sleeping schedule, going to bed and rising at the same time each day.
  • Avoid letting him or her take long or frequent naps during the day.
  • Make sure your loved one gets regular exercise.
  • Take your senior outside or sit in natural light; it regulates the body's sleep-wake cycle.
  • Minimize caffeine and alcohol.
  • Make sure that the bed is for sleeping only.  If the senior is unable to fall asleep in 15 minutes, encourage him or her to get up, move to a chair and try another activity.

As always, if your senior's health situation changes and he or she has frequent, chronic sleep problems, talk to their doctor.  But these simple-to-follow steps may do the trick to help your senior loved one sleep soundly through the night.  

References
'How do my sleep habits change as I age?' by Molly Edmonds, Discovery Health,
health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/aging/aging-process/sleep/aging.htm
'Insomnia in Older Adults.  Tips for Sleeping Better as You Age', HELPGUIDE.org,
helpguide.org/life/sleep_aging.htm
'Aging and Sleep', National Sleep Foundation,
nsf@sleepfoundation.org

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