For many in the elderly population, sleep is a challenge. Researchers are learning that more than half of the individuals in the United States who fall in the classification of “older” people have at least one complaint about how well they can sleep at night. As we age there are specific changes which naturally occur to the body. These changes can affect sleep cycles, in a negative way.
Older people have more rapid sleep cycles with less a deep sleep and awaken more often during the night. These changes are also affected by a decrease in hormones that affect a person’s sleep patterns. Changes to the sleep patterns can result in complaints of difficulty falling asleep, waking up frequently, not feeling rested in the morning, or being tired during the day. Most of these changes fall under the heading of insomnia.
Seniors need their sleep to restore their body as much as anyone else. The fact is, anyone who gets enough sleep will have the ability to concentrate better, improve their memory and strengthen their immune system which helps to prevent diseases.
In one study published in July 2008, researchers found that individuals offered many hours of sleep as they could handle were able to sleep only 7.5 hours if they were elderly and could average nine hours if they were younger. Researchers postulated that the ability to sleep when given the opportunity to sleep more may be because of age-related changes in the ability to fall asleep and remain asleep. The results of this study could be applied only to help the individuals who were taking no medication and had no medical conditions or previously diagnose sleep disorders. (1)
In many cases insomnia in the elderly can be caused by underlying, but very treatable, causes. Rather than being a distinct condition, it is a symptom of many conditions and because of this there is no one treatment that can be applied for the complaint. Instead individuals must investigate why they are having problems with insomnia in order to treat the underlying condition.
For example, restless leg syndrome affects approximately 10 percent of adults or up to 12 million people in the United States. People who suffer from this syndrome will experience abnormal sensations in their legs when they go to bed which makes it extremely difficult for them to sleep. However, treating this condition will erase the problem with insomnia.
Unfortunately, some individuals have learned not to sleep or learned that falling asleep is difficult. For example, people with had a heart attack, suffered a loss or has been depressed may find it is difficult for a short season to fall asleep but continue to experience difficulty even after the short-term problem has been eradicated. This is because sleep, and the act of falling asleep, is a learned behavior and once we learn how not to fall asleep it becomes even more difficult to un-learn
Some sleep programs use sleeping pills to help individuals learn to fall asleep. However, these are not cure-all and should not be used for more than two weeks at a time. Some individuals will take sleeping pills for many years but by this time the drug is more of a psychological aid than a real sleep aid.
When learning to fall asleep has become a learned behavior behavior modification may be the only long term cure. By changing sleep habits, sleep schedules and belief systems around the sleep those who need eight hours of sleep a night can achieve it.
Just how much an older person needs is a matter of dispute. Some physicians believe that older people sleep less because they need the less and that they become sleepy earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning once they achieve a full night’s rest.
In another study published from Bringham’s and Women’s Hospital in a joint effort with Harvard Medical School researchers found that the elderly do not need as much sleep as the general population. They believe that the real answer lies in the changes in circadian rhythm and the amount of REM sleep.
This long-range study dates back to February 1997 and involved 185 healthy older adults. Upon review of the results of testing researchers found that the results of individuals who had specific EEG sleep characteristics had an excess risk of dying beyond their inherent risk of age, gender or other medical conditions they may have had. That risk increased with a low percentage of REM sleep. (2)
If you find it difficult to get to sleep, or stay asleep, you may want to adjust your sleep habits. Some things you can consider our your activity level. Many studies have shown that exercise is helpful to regulate sleep and by getting enough sunlight during the late afternoon you can also increase the amount of melatonin your body produces, a hormone which plays a significant role in sleep activity.
Drinking coffee during the latter part of the day can really affect your sleep with the increased amount of caffeine. And, while alcohol may make you feel sleepy at first it actually in pairs your ability to stay asleep and rest.
New research now hands that it can be helpful if you nap during the day for no longer than 30 minutes. Physicians once frowned on the habit because they believed it could disrupt your sleep during the night and lead to health problems but now they have found that a limited nap is helpful.
Use you have any chronic conditions the medications you’re taking may be negatively impacting your sleep cycle. Talk with your doctor about the medications and any sleep problems you are having. If some of them disturbs sleep you may be able to change the dosage or switch the medication.
(1) Cell Press: Older People May need Less Sleep
(2) Journal of Sleep Research: Circadian Variations of EEG Power Spectra in NREM and REM Sleep in Humans