Seniors Sleeping Soundly
Getting sound, refreshing sleep is vitally important to our good health and overall well-being. And sleeping well is a whole different ballgame when we get older. Younger people tend to get more deep sleep while older folks will pop in and out of sleep phases quicker. As a result, they spend less time in the deepest stages of sleep that give bodies the best possible rest.
If you have trouble sleeping, you’re not alone. A recent study by the National Institute on Aging reports that more than half of 9,000 seniors surveyed reported sleep problems. Lack of sleep can make you irritable, depressed, or more prone to accidents and illnesses. Being sleepy during the day because you’ve not slept well the night before is no fun, yet napping can start a vicious cycle, keeping you awake the next evening.
Insomnia is an overall term for difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. It has many possible causes, including worrying or obsessing, pain or illness, lack of routine/poor sleep habits, side effects of medications, and stimulants like caffeine. Some people have sleep apnea—a condition in which your body does not get enough oxygen saturation at night, leaving you feeling exhausted during the day. Loud snoring can indicate sleep apnea.
It can be tricky to get to the bottom of what’s causing sleep disorders. When my patients complain about sleeping poorly, I ask them to keep a sleep log with details like:
- When they go to bed
- How much time they toss and turn
- When they wake up
- Interruptions in sleep
- Symptoms, such as pain or discomfort
- Nap times
We study the sleep log together for patterns and individual factors that can be addressed to improve sleep.
I also suggest the following:
- If you don’t fall asleep in the first 15-20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing. Lying in bed trying to fall asleep for a long time just provokes anxiety and frustration. Get out of bed and read, work a puzzle, or take a warm bath.
- Don’t watch TV right before bed—it is too stimulating to the brain and can keep you awake.
- Avoid substances like caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and sugar—all of which can disturb sleep.
- During the day, spend some time in the fresh air and sunshine.
- Get regular, gentle exercise appropriate for your level of fitness.
If you are concerned about your inability to sleep well, please consult with your primary care provider. They can help you assess your situation and get to the bottom of the problem. In certain cases, they may prescribe a medication such as ambien or sonata to help you get to sleep. Be cautious about using over-the-counter sleep aids. Many of them, including Benadryl and Tylenol PM, contain a substance called “diphenhydramine” which is generally considered inappropriate for the elderly and can cause confusion, constipation, and other side effects. My best recommendation is always to try lifestyle changes before resulting to medications. Oftentimes, we can discover and address the underlying problem that’s preventing a good night’s sleep.