Solving Sleep Problems in Seniors
It is a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age. Older adults need the same amount of sleep as younger adults: 7 to 9 hours each night.
Changes in sleep patterns, or what specialists call "sleep architecture", can occur as we age, and this may contribute to sleep problems. There are two kinds of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. We dream mostly during REM sleep and have the deepest sleep during non-REM sleep. The sleep cycle is repeated several times during the night, and although total sleep time tends to remain constant, older people can spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep.
Other factors affecting sleep are the circadian rhythms that coordinate the timing of our bodily functions, including sleep ─ and seniors tend to become sleepier in the early evening and wake earlier in the morning, as compared to younger adults. This pattern is called “advanced sleep phase syndrome”.
What causes sleep problems? A number of things can cause sleep problems. By the time an adult is over 65 years old, his or her sleep-wake cycle may not work as well as it did when he or she was younger. As we age, the body makes less growth hormone and melatonin, the chemicals and hormones that help us sleep well. Some lifestyle habits, such as smoking and drinking alcohol or caffeinated drinks, can cause sleep problems, as can illness, pain, or medications. Additional causes can include:
- Insomnia is the most common sleep problem in adults age 60 and older. People with insomnia have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.
- Sleep apnea causes frequent, short pauses in breathing while sleeping. If not treated, sleep apnea can lead to other problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, or memory loss.
- Movement disorders, such as restless legs syndrome (RLS), a condition in which legs feel very uncomfortable when you are sitting or lying down; and periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), a condition in which a person kicks one or both legs many times during sleep. Medications may help.
- Alzheimer’s disease can cause some seniors to sleep too much, while others don’t sleep enough. Some people wake up many times during the night; others wander or become agitated. Safety precautions around the home definitely need to be addressed for seniors with Alzheimer’s.
- Other health factors include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), diabetes mellitus, renal failure, respiratory diseases such as asthma, and immune disorders. Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis (MS) also can cause problems sleeping.
How seniors can improve their sleep. No matter the reason, without a good night’s sleep, the next day, a senior can be tired and irritable, unable to perform tasks, have memory problems or be forgetful, feel depressed, and be at risk for more falls or accidents.
Here are some preventative tips that you can give to your loved one:
Talk with your doctor:
- Ask your doctor for help if pain or other health problems are keeping you awake.
- Ask if any medicines could be keeping you awake at night. Medicines that can disrupt sleep include antidepressants, beta-blockers, and cardiovascular drugs.
- Limit the use of sleep aids and sleeping pills. Many sleep aids have side effects and are not for long-term use; sleeping pills don’t address the causes of insomnia and can make it worse in the long run.
- Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. Read, take a bath, or listen to soft music before bed.
- Maintain a regular bed and wake time schedule, and avoid napping in the late afternoon or evening.
- Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool.
- Sleep on a comfortable, supportive mattress and pillows, and with suitable blankets.
- Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before bed, and avoid nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine.
- Naturally boost melatonin levels. Artificial lights at night can suppress production of melatonin.
- Use low-wattage bulbs where you can. Turn off the TV and computer at least one hour before bed.
During the day:
- Engage with others and perform daily tasks to help prepare the body for a good night’s sleep.
- Improve your mood. A more positive mood and outlook can reduce sleep problems.
- Exercise at regular times each day with physician approval, but not within 3 hours of your bedtime, to release endorphins that can boost mood and reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.
- Get out in the sunlight each day. Bright sunlight helps regulate melatonin and sleep-wake cycles.
Comfort Keepers® can help. Comfort Keepers®’ Interactive Caregiving™ keeps senior clients engaged physically, mentally, and emotionally while living independently at home. Call your local office today to find out more about all the ways we can help your loved one.
National Institute on Aging (NIH). “A Good Night’s Sleep”. Web. 2015
FamilyDoctor.org. “Sleep Changes in Older Adults”. Web. 2012.
HealthGuide.org. “How to Sleep Well as You Age”. Web. 2016.
National Sleep Foundation. “Aging and Sleep”. Web. 2016.