Senior Sleep Disorders: Are You Dreaming About A Good Night’s Sleep?
May 6, 2017
Many seniors say they can’t remember the last time they had a good night’s sleep. Senior sleep disorders have many causes, and some may be easy to correct. Still, the majority of people with sleep problems never mention it to their doctors.
Senior Sleep Disorders Are Common
Problems falling asleep or staying asleep are annoying and cause daytime fatigue. Unfortunately, many people see that as a “normal” part of aging. Indeed, it does seem like a lot of seniors have sleep problems. The most common are:
- Less time spent in deep sleep. Most deep sleep happens during the first two sleep cycles, and this type of sleep contributes to daytime physical stamina and mental alertness. Older people tend to have more fragmented sleep cycles and spend less time in Stage 3 and 4 sleep.
- Lifestyle factors: Frequent napping, caffeine consumption, alcohol use, and exercise schedules can make it difficult to go to sleep and/or stay asleep.
- Medication side effects or illness: Illness can cause pain, which makes it harder to sleep, while medications taken for various symptoms also affect sleep. Antidepressants and decongestants often act as stimulants, while diuretics stimulate the bladder and cause frequent bathroom visits.
- Sleep apnea: This condition is called a “primary sleep disorder” and it’s most common in older people. Sufferers may wake dozens – or even hundreds – of times per night when their blood oxygen levels drop. It’s like you’re being suffocated as you sleep. The most frequent symptom is loud, excessive snoring.
Lack of adequate sleep affects overall health and quality of life.
Sleep Deprivation is Dangerous
A 2013 UC Berkley study found that sleep deprivation prevents the brain from storing memories. The main culprit appears to be lack of deep sleep:
In older adults, the results showed a clear link between the degree of brain deterioration in the middle frontal lobe and the severity of impaired “slow wave activity” during sleep. On average, the quality of their deep sleep was 75 percent lower than that of the younger participants, and their memory of the word pairs the next day was 55 percent worse.
Meanwhile, in younger adults, brain scans showed that deep sleep had efficiently helped to shift their memories from the short-term storage of the hippocampus to the long-term storage of the prefrontal cortex.
This isn’t limited to older people. Just ask any new parents about the effects of babies on sleep, memory, and daytime efficiency. However, a new baby or a new job is a short-term issue, while aging is not.
Memory isn’t the only problem: chronic senior sleep disorders and deprivation affect overall health. Besides making you grumpy, tired, and forgetful, sleep deprivation contributes to weight gain, makes you more susceptible to illness, and increases your risk of chronic health problems.
It’s important to treat senior sleep disorders as an actual health problem, not just an annoyance.
10 Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep
Getting older affects sleep, but there are things you can do to sleep better, longer.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol. The first keeps you awake and the second makes you sleepy – but only for a bit. Alcohol before bedtime disrupts sleep, and older people are more susceptible to its effects.
- Get regular exercise. Physical activity can help make you tired enough to get a good night’s sleep. It also makes you healthier – another contributor to sleep!
- Keep daytime naps short. A short nap – 1 hour or less – is restorative, but a longer one that puts you into deep sleep can disrupt nighttime sleep.
- Drink water/fluids earlier in the day. The more you drink later in the day, the more you may wake up at night.
- Develop a bedtime ritual. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time. Practice meditation or deep-breathing exercises to help you relax and fall asleep.
- Limit electronics before bedtime. Turn off your phone and the T. Listen to soothing music or a relaxing audiobook instead.
- Keep a notebook on the nightstand. Don’t fret about tomorrow’s “must do” tasks. Write them down and set the list aside. It will be there in the morning!
- Eat early. A heavy late meal stimulates your system and keeps you awake.
- Be careful with sleep aids. Take over-the-counter sleep medications are sparingly. It’s easy to become psychologically dependent on them, and some have long-term health effects.
- Run in the sun! Regular sunlight helps regulate your body’s hormone levels, particularly melatonin. That’s the “sleep hormone” that tells your body when it’s time to power down and wake up.
Still, no matter how careful we are, growing older will inevitably affect health, memory, and sleep cycles. Even moderate sleep deprivation can be equivalent to legal intoxication. Someone living alone may not realize that senior sleep disorders are affecting health and mental acuity – until there’s a fall, fire, or accident.
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