It is a common myth that seniors don’t need as much sleep as they age. However, at every stage of life, getting quality sleep is essential to mental and physical health. It is recommended that adults get seven to eight hours every night, but changes in sleep patterns due to aging mean that those over 65 tend to get less and less sleep.
Some changes in sleep that seniors may notice are sleeping for less time, taking longer to get to sleep, waking up more often during the night, waking up earlier, feeling sleepier earlier, and napping in the afternoon. Geriatrician and psychiatrist Dan G. Blazer said the problem for many seniors is that they don’t expect or don’t want to accept these changes. “They begin to worry about their sleep, which can lead to real concern, even when their sleep is not at all abnormal,” he said.
One of the most common factors of changing sleep habits is that with increased age comes a higher prevalence of advanced sleep phase syndrome, which is what causes many seniors to both go to bed and wake up several hours earlier than societal norms. While advanced sleep phase syndrome may conflict with normal daily schedules, seniors who follow a consistent pattern will usually get adequate sleep and not experience daytime sleepiness. However, most seniors with this condition wake up early regardless of what time they went to sleep, so late nights can affect their sleep cycles and result in sleepiness during the day.
While changes in sleep are normal with increasing age, there are several other health issues that could be causing poor sleep quality. Insomnia is more prevalent in seniors; a National Sleep Foundation poll found that 44 percent of older adults experience one or more of the nighttime symptoms of insomnia at least a few times a week or more. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder in which a sleeping person stops breathing for 10 to 60 second intervals, causing the oxygen levels in the blood to drop. The brain is alerted to this and wakes the person up several times throughout the night. OSA is often linked to other chronic conditions that are prominent in seniors, like high blood pressure and hypertension. It is a serious disorder but is easily treated; if left untreated, it can lead to cardiovascular disease, memory loss, headaches, and more. Snoring also becomes worse with age, and especially affects those who are overweight.
Tips for Quality Sleep
While changes in sleep are a normal part of aging, there are a few steps seniors can take to obtain quality sleep every night. It’s important to keep a consistent wake and sleep cycle and avoid deviating from it. Limiting naps during the day will allow seniors to focus on getting better quality of sleep at night. If naps are really needed, they should be kept short – around 30 minutes – and taken earlier in the day so that they don’t interfere with the normal sleep cycle. Stimulants like caffeine and tobacco, and depressants like alcohol, can all affect sleep quality and should be avoided. Coffee should only be consumed in the morning in limited amounts. Daily exercise will greatly benefit seniors, including improving their quality of sleep. However, exercising too late in the day can make it hard to wind down; it’s better to be active earlier in the day and not after 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening.
Making minor changes to the bedroom can help seniors sleep easier. Most people sleep better in cooler air, including seniors. Keeping the bedroom temperature in the mid-70s or lower is ideal. Many seniors keep their homes warmer, so they will have to remember to lower the temperature at night. For those who wake up often during the night, it may help to turn the bedside clock away so that the time is not visible. Knowing what time it is and how often they are waking may make seniors feel even worse. A dark room is the best environment to sleep in. Seniors can keep a flashlight nearby for safety, but it is best to avoid any strong light or screen lights in the hour before bed time.
Worry and stress can easily keep a senior up at night. It may help to write down those worries before bed. Making a point to get those thoughts off the mind until the next day will help worriers sleep easier. It’s also important to remember that some sleep issues may not be due to age, but are caused by other health issues like chronic pain, depression and sleep disorders. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 24 percent of seniors age 65 to 84 have been diagnosed with four or more medical conditions; of that group, 80 percent report having a sleep problem. Seniors with sleep issues can talk to their doctor about treatment. It is best to avoid medication, but a small dose may be the best option for some. A doctor can prescribe the best medication for the situation, which will be safer and more effective than using over-the-counter sleep aids.
“Sleeping Well as You Age,” Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.