The average sleep need at night for most adults is about eight hours. It is said and generally considered normal that older people need less sleeping as they age. However, it is not the case, as studies have shown that people’s sleeping needs through adulthood never change. Still, we can see many cases of older people actually sleeping less. What is correct, then?
As we grow older, we might have more problems falling asleep, or sleeping deep or long enough. We might wake up very early in the morning and not be able to fall asleep again. All that could result in a less total sleep time, but it does not reflect our sleeping needs.
Lack of sleeping might greatly affect a person’s ability to normally function at daytime, concentrating might become difficult which can also increase risk for all range of accidents, potentially falls. As it affects the immune system as well, the body has a harder job to fight illnesses that would normally be fairly resistant to.
Sleeping problems in elderly might also be connected with a depression, which is a major problem alone already, let alone topped with insomnia.
How Do I Know If I Actually Have Sleeping Problems? When Does Sleeplessness Turn into a Disorder?
Dealing with sleeplessness (insomnia) is never easy. Although very often old age and sleeping problems are going hand-in-hand, the actual acknowledgment of the disorder existing is extremely important, so that it could be examined and treated if needed.
After one or two sleepless night, you might just be out of pattern temporarily, but if your sleeping pattern has changed lately and not only in terms of going to bed earlier and thus waking up earlier, but more, you should start observing your sleeping (or non-sleeping) habits. You might even want to keep a record of it in writing for a while. It can be a very useful base for a specialist to help you.
Some questions you may ask yourself :
Do you regularly have difficulties to sleep at your usual time, do you struggle to fall asleep and/or staying asleep?
Can you often easily fall asleep while reading or watching TV, even if you don’t want to?
Do you many times feel unusually sleepy during the day, does the bed “call you” for a nap?
Are you lately in general irritable or anxious more than before?
Do you find it regularly difficult to focus throughout the day lately?
Is your thinking often slower and your reacting time longer than before?
Do you suddenly find yourself excessively forgetful these days?
Even more than one of the above mentioned?
Already one of these signs might indicate a sleeping disorder. The more of these present increase the likelihood of it.
Medical Conditions at Old Age and Sleeping Problems
Poor health can be a cause to more sleeping problems. A wide variety of medical conditions and acute or chronic illnesses can affect sleeping routine in the elderly. Chronic physical conditions, like diabetes, fibromyalgia, arthritis, heartburn, thyroid disease, hypertension, nocturia, bronchitis, asthma – they all can more or less affect the way we sleep.
Neurological disorders are another large group of causes for poor sleeping. Headaches, migraines, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy…
Anxiety, fear, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia…with most of these conditions people do not sleep either long or deep enough. They can frequently wake up and then have difficulties to fall asleep again.
A short time memory loss, which is common at old age, can negatively affect the sleeping. Waking up in bed at the middle of night not knowing how we got there, for example, can be very disturbing. People with this condition might not recognize whether it was night or day time, thinking they should get up, even if they went to bed just a couple of minutes ago, or the opposite-thinking they haven’t had any sleep yet, when they should already get up.
Medication treatment of these ( and many other ) illnesses also can sometimes have a side effect of negatively affecting sleeping. As one of possible causes of your insomnia could be the medication you take, you should talk about it with your doctor to find out If it is.
On the other hand, feeling pain is a serious disturbance of sleep length or quality. In this case, your doctor should also be able to help you not to be awake when you do not want to.
The Other Side – Excessive Sleeping
As much as non-sleeping can be a problem, the excessive daytime sleepiness can be as well. The most common cause of daytime sleepiness is lack of nighttime sleep quantity and quality.
At old age it is also not unusual to go to bed earlier and also spontaneously wake up earlier. Combined with the possible several nighttime awakenings and maybe arousal this can seriously decrease both length and achieved depth, which in turn can easily cause a prolonged daytime sleepiness.
A sleepy elderly will easily introduce a long nap, thinking that it will add up to the rest which could not be achieved at nighttime. However, it will usually only add up to the problem, as any nap longer than 20 minutes will almost surely disrupt an already disturbed sleeping pattern. Having slept a considerable portion at day time, the person’s drive for sleep is seriously delayed. Further, unsuccessfully trying to fall asleep can cause a frustration, resulting in even later start of sleep, shortening thus even more the already shortened nighttime sleep length. So it is kind of vicious circle, with one affecting the other and vice versa.
That is the reason why these two problems are to be observed both as a connected issue when examining it.
How can I improve my sleeping at old age (or almost at any…)
We have discussed insomnia due to medical conditions which need to be examined first in order to be successfully treated. But, what if your sleeping problems are due to more common reasons? Can you do something about it?
When your bed times and wake times are hectic, your inner bio clock is not given a chance to form a pattern that it could stick to. In other words, your body is not prepared to sleep when you go to bed. Introducing some regularity certainly can help your intention of sleeping be recognized. Try to stick to going to bed and waking up approximately at the same time.
Having a habit of staying in bed for quite some time after waking up also brings a confusion for your mind-so, should it be now sleeping time, or waking time? It will not help to form a healthy sleeping pattern. Giving up this habit probably will.
Also, “counting sheep” for a long time is counterproductive when it comes to your sleeping. Experts usually suggest getting up after not more than twenty minutes of unsuccessful attempt to fall asleep. You should have a book that you can read for a while, before you go back to bed and try again.
Many people at older age do enjoy a day nap. This sometimes tend to be too long, an hour or even two. Having such a long nap will only worsen the sleeping problems. Approximately 20-25 minutes should be quite enough.
Refraining from having a coffee or tea in the late afternoon, unless it is decaff, will also help improve your chances of to fall asleep in the evening. On the contrary of the usual opinion, your night rest will not be improved by having alcohol in the evening, which may bring a fast asleep at a time, but in the long run it is also an enemy to healthy sleeping, better to avoid it at least a few hours before going to bed.
Maintaining a normal level of activity and adopting a habit of doing at least some light exercises during the day can prove to be of great help to your sleep at night.
Sleeping in a pleasant environment, in a not too warm or too cold room (ideally 18-21 C), at a comfortable bed with a good mattress, with not too much noise, either from outside (traffic, dogs, cats) or from working devices inside (to fall asleep with a TV on, a loud heater or cooling fan) light or other disturbance goes without saying.
All people deserve to sleep well. Not only deserve, but need, because it is critical to health. The downsides of constant sleep problems are considerable. Apart from the generally significantly reduced quality of life, the consequences in form of day fatigue, loss of concentration, constant tiredness may set the path to falls and accidents, especially in elderly.
That said, we must acknowledge that, although a considerable number of seniors complain of poor sleep, much smaller number of them actually have sleeping disorders and it is very wrong to go for any kind of sedatives before a thorough medical examination of the problem by a specialist. When you think your sleeplessness or excessive sleepiness needs medical attention, your doctor will work with you to check your symptoms, sleeping habits, daytime habits, and your illness history to separate all the potential causes and find the best way to help.
Yet, most of the sleeping problems will change for better with changes that you can implement on your own. See the section “How can I improve my sleeping…” for exact advises. Adopting healthy sleeping habits is not possible overnight, but is well worth the effort.
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