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A Good Night’s Sleep: Understanding Sleep Changes in Older Adults

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We all know the feeling of a good night’s sleep. When you sleep well, you wake up feeling healthy, refreshed, and ready to start the day. But when you don’t have a well-rested night, you might feel sluggish, tired, and irritable. If you find yourself having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night, you might be experiencing insomnia. Insomnia is a major senior health concern, and the most common sleep disorder in adults 65 and older.

As we age, our bodies undergo natural changes that can make sleep more difficult. Certain medical conditions may also lead to insomnia and disrupted sleep. But contrary to popular belief, older adults don’t need less sleep than younger adults. All adults, regardless of age, need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. However, due to aging, seniors typically experience a shift in their sleep-wake cycle that causes them to fall asleep earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning. Older adults also tend to be light sleepers and spend less time in the deep stages of their sleep cycles.

What causes insomnia in seniors?

Insomnia can have many root causes. It could be the result of poor bedtime habits, medications, stress and anxiety, excess caffeine, and even eating too much before bed. Insomnia can also be a side-effect of existing health concerns such as arthritis osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, diabetes, and heart disease. Likewise, neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease are commonly linked to insomnia. Other sleep-related problems such as snoring, restless legs syndrome, or sleep apnea can also prevent older adults from falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night.

How is insomnia prevented?

Sleep hygiene refers to the tasks and habits that we do to prepare for a restful night’s sleep. Improving your sleep hygiene is one way to prevent insomnia and promote healthier sleeping habits. Here are a few good sleep hygiene practices to try:

  • Limit caffeine before bedtime.
  • Avoid eating heavy, fried, spicy, or fatty foods before bed. Indigestion can keep you up at night.
  • Exercise during the day to improve your sleep quality at night. However, avoid exercising too close to bedtime, as this may interfere with your ability to fall asleep.
  • Create a relaxing, peaceful bedtime routine that works for you. For example, take a warm shower or bath to wind down. Drink a cup of non-caffeinated tea. Read a book or write in a diary. Adhering to a consistent bedtime routine will signal to your body that it’s time to rest.
  • Avoid too much exposure to blue light from digital devices right before bedtime. Turn off the TV and put away the computer, phone, or tablet at least 30 minutes before you go to bed.
  • Create your ideal sleep environment. Make sure your mattress and pillows offer comfort and support. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the temperature in your sleep environment should be set between 60 and 67 degrees for ideal sleep conditions. Some people find using ear plugs, sleep masks, fans or white noise machines helps them fall asleep more easily.

How is insomnia diagnosed and treated?

It’s very important to talk to your doctor if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night, or if you regularly feel tired throughout the day. If necessary, your primary care physician may refer you to a sleep specialist, who can diagnose your sleep condition and provide a comprehensive treatment program. Treatment may involve making lifestyle changes, taking a new medication or supplement, or a combination of these two approaches.

Written by Bethany Village

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