We achieve perfect sleep in late childhood, when we can get a full night’s sleep, awake rested, and feel energized throughout the day. It seems that beyond the age of 11 or 12, we begin to experience sleep disturbances that affect sleep quality or quantity. Seven out of every ten adults report that they are affected by sleep issues.
Seniors seem to experience numerous changes to their sleep habits – including growing tired earlier in the evening, waking up earlier in the morning, and having less deep sleep – all of which are normal for their age. However, seniors are also affected by conditions which are not normal, such as interrupted sleep, continuous fatigue throughout the day, and other symptoms of insomnia and sleep disorders.
Seniors must take extra steps to ensure that they achieve the amount of sleep required to remain healthy and active. Overcoming age-related sleep issues can improve your daily life and help you get a full night’s sleep.
Older Adults and Sleep
Like all age groups, senior citizens have physical and mental needs that are met through sleep. Our bodies need rest, and in older adults, it can improve concentration, help form memories, improve the body’s immune system, repairs cell damage, and prevents disease.
Without a solid night’s sleep, seniors may start experiences problems, including:
- Attention and memory problems
- Daytime sleepiness
- Nighttime falls
- Serious health problems, such as increased risk of:
- Weight problems
- Cardiovascular conditions
- Breast cancer in women
As you age, your body requires varying amounts of sleep. Adults typically require between 7.5 and 9 hours of sleep each night, but each individual is different. If you awake in the morning and don’t feel rested or find yourself tired throughout the day, then you may not be getting enough sleep at night.
Sleep Strategy #1: Understanding How Aging Affects Your Sleep
Deep sleep, which is an especially refreshing cycle of sleep, is decreased as you age in part due to the body’s lowered production of the growth hormone. The body also produces less melatonin as you age, causing fragmented sleep and periods of wakefulness during the night. Many seniors find it normal to be light sleepers, awakening at the slightest sound.
Seniors often joke about how early they tend to want to go to sleep in the evening and find themselves getting up early in the morning. Due to their light sleep at night, they may find themselves lying in bed longer trying to make up for missing sleep or they may opt to take regular afternoon naps to fill in the sleep gaps.
Signs of a sleep disorder include regularly experiencing trouble falling asleep when tired, waking up and not feeling rested, irritability or fatigue during the day, falling asleep while sitting still, difficulty concentrating, being overly emotional, and relying on sleeping pills or other aids to fall asleep at night.
Sleep Strategy #2: Determining Underlying Problems
In order to treat sleep issues that are not age-related, you must first understand the underlying cause for the sleep issue. Sleep can be affected by numerous concerns, including health problems, emotional issues, or traumatic experiences.
Typical Causes of Sleep Problems in Seniors:
- Poor sleep environment and sleep habits. Your bedroom should be cool, dark, and quiet and your bed should be comfortable with a mattress that is appropriate for your style of sleep. Do not keep a television in your bedroom and don’t stay on your phone while in bed. Follow a nighttime ritual that helps you relax and prepare for sleep.
- Medical conditions. Various medical conditions can affect your ability to fall or stay asleep, including those that involve frequent urination, pain, or nighttime heartburn. Conditions may include diabetes, osteoporosis, asthma, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Oftentimes we are prescribed a medicine for a medical condition and discover that the side effects include sleep disturbances. Check with your doctor, as it may be possible to adjust the time you take the pill or the amount that you are prescribed, or your doctor may be able to change your medication to something that does not cause sleep issues.
- Stress can come from many different situations, including retirement, losing a loved one, or a move, and it can interfere with your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
- Lack of exercise. Exercise is important for the health of your body, and being inactive on a regular basis can cause you to feel sleepy all the time.
- Social engagement is important in helping us feel like part of a group and fights symptoms of depression. Social activities are a great way to decrease loneliness and increase physical activities, preparing the body to relax at bedtime.
- Menopause and post menopause. Hot flashes and night sweats of menopause interfere with your ability to sleep. Even post menopause, sleep problems may continue, but healthy eating and exercise can help overcome these issues.
- Lack of sunlight or low vitamin D levels. Sunlight helps with the body’s production of vitamin D, which regulates melatonin and the sleep/wake cycle. Open your blinds or go for a walk around the block during the day to help your body get enough vitamin D.
Sleep Strategy #3: Improving Sleep
While it’s different for each person, it’s possible to improve your sleep through addressing your daytime habits, emotional issues, and your bedroom environment. You can improve your sleep patterns by encouraging better sleep, following a bedtime routine, and learning how to nap.
To encourage better sleep at night, you’ll want to not only increase exposure to sunlight, but also decrease the presence of artificial lighting in the evening. Light from lamps, the television, or computer screens will suppress your body’s production of melatonin, which will keep you awake longer. Even using a backlit device, like an iPad, can keep you awake longer.
Arrange your bedroom so that it is a sanctuary for sleep. It should be dark, cool, and quiet. Don’t use your bedroom for watching television, reading, or any other activities besides sleep and sex. This will prevent your mind from associating the bedroom with other activities and you will be more prepared to sleep when you go to bed. It’s also wise to keep clocks out of view so you don’t “clock watch” if you have trouble sleeping.
To help improve sleep, you need to prepare a plan for your bedtime ritual. A regular sleep schedule is important, as it helps your body know when to be ready for sleep and when it’s time to get up. Try to keep to your schedule, even on the weekends and holidays. Prepare yourself for sleep with a ritual that could include reading, meditation, or a hot bath and avoid relying on sleeping pills, which have side effects and can be addicting.
If you do decide that a nap is necessary to help you get through the day, there are certain strategies that you should keep in mind. A nap should be taken early in the afternoon so that it doesn’t interfere with your nighttime sleepiness. You should nap in your bed, not on the couch, in a chair, or other location. Daytime naps should be short – no longer than 30 minutes – for the most effective sleep without the grogginess upon waking that is associated with longer naps.
Sleep Strategy #4: Diet and Exercise
Diet and exercise are especially important for aging adults to achieve a solid night’s sleep. In the evening hours, you should limit certain foods and drinks to help encourage sleep. Caffeine should be avoided, as should alcoholic beverages. Sugary foods, as well as refined carbs like bread and pasta, can cause a rise in blood sugar levels and awaken you at night. Large meals and spicy foods can also cause problematic sleep due to indigestion and stomach discomfort.
It’s best to plan a modest-sized dinner for at least three hours prior to bedtime. Eat a healthy snack before you go to sleep to prevent your stomach from grumbling after you’ve gotten into bed. Choose something light, such as low-sugar cereal, yogurt, or even a glass of warm milk. Try not to drink too much prior to bedtime, or you may find yourself waking up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Having a regular exercise plan – particularly aerobic exercises – causes your body to release endorphins. You should schedule your exercise for the morning or early afternoon so that you have come down off your endorphin “high” in time to relax for bed. Even seniors with mobility problems can still find some form of exercise which will help them get a good night’s sleep. Always check with your physician before starting a new exercise program.
A study by Northwestern University found that middle-aged and older adults diagnosed with insomnia could dramatically improve their quality of sleep and sleep duration by becoming active through regular aerobic exercise. An effective exercise program could include:
- Swimming – Water exercises are a good choice for older adults with sore joints or weak muscles.
- Dancing – Dancing is fun and can be low impact. It is also a great place to meet new people and add to your social life.
- Golf – Golfing offers low-level activity and is especially beneficial when walking is involved. It is also a good way to broaden friendships and allows you to spend time out in the sun.
- Lawn games, like bocce – These games are often played at a slow pace and provide the opportunity to walk at a brisk pace and enjoy the outdoors.
- Cycling or running – Adults in good shape can still enjoy more intense activities, such as running or cycling, which can be done outside or inside on a treadmill or stationary bike.
Participants in the study, after exercising for up to 40 minutes four times each week, reported fewer depressive symptoms, more energy, and less daytime sleepiness. They also experienced better sleep during the study.
Sleep Strategy #5: Reduce Stress
Stress is a fact of life. No matter your age, you face stress that can affect your ability to fall asleep at night. There are methods that can help reduce stress levels so that you can let go of anxiety when it’s time to sleep.
- Write down concerns and problems in a journal and then let them go so you can sleep
- Keep a to-do list where you can mark what you’ve completed and responsibilities for the next day
- Listen to soft, relaxing music or sounds like ocean waves or rain
- Read a book
- Take a bath
- Use relaxation techniques, such as yoga
- Plan to speak with a close friend or counselor about any problems that are bothering you
What To Do If You Wake Up
It is normal for older adults to awaking during the night. When trying to fall back asleep, try not to think about the possibility of not falling back to sleep. Don’t watch the clock and count the minutes that you lie awake. Instead, stay in bed and lie motionless while focusing on relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or prayer. If necessary, time spent relaxing can help refresh the body when sleep is unattainable.
If you find that you are unable to fall back asleep after approximately 20 minutes, it may be best to get out of bed. You don’t want your body to associate lying in bed with something other than sleep, so getting up and reading a book or doing some other non-stimulating activity is best for you. Do not turn on the television and be sure to keep the lights dim. Head back to bed when you start to feel sleepy again.
Good Night’s Sleep
While sleep problems do arise as you age, you can face them and fix them. If you find that, after making changes to your sleep habits, you still find yourself experiencing symptoms of insomnia or other sleep issues, it may be time to speak with your doctor about addressing the issue. Your physician may refer you to a sleep specialist for further treatment. Regardless, these five sleep strategies will effectively improve your daily sleep habits and help to ensure that you get a good night’s sleep.