Sleep & Older Adults
A good night’s sleep is important to older adults for many reasons. It helps improve concentration and memory formation, allows the body to repair any cell damage that occurred during the day, and refreshes the immune system, which helps to prevent disease. Older adults who don’t sleep well are more likely to suffer from headaches, depression, attention and memory problems, excessive daytime sleepiness, and experience more nighttime falls. Insufficient sleep can also lead to serious health problems, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight problems, and breast cancer in women. We have touched on some of the common causes of poor sleep in older adults and this week we hope to educate on a few tips to encourage a better night’s rest.
While sleep requirements vary from person to person, most healthy adults require 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep per night. However, how you feel in the morning is more important than a specific number of hours. Frequently waking up not feeling rested or feeling tired during the day are the best indications that you’re not getting enough sleep. In many cases, you can improve your sleep by addressing emotional issues, improving your sleep environment, and choosing healthier daytime habits. Since everyone is different, though, it may take some experimentation to find the specific changes that work best to improve your sleep.
Naturally boost your melatonin levels. Artificial lights at night can suppress your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. Use low-wattage bulbs and turn off the TV and computer at least one hour before bed.
Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool, and your bed is comfortable. We often become more sensitive to noise as we age, and light and heat can also cause sleep problems. Try using a sound machine, ear plugs, or a sleep mask.
Use your bedroom only for sleep. By not working, watching TV, or using your computer in bed, your brain will associate the bedroom with just sleep.
Move bedroom clocks out of view. The light can disrupt your sleep and anxiously watching the minutes tick by is a surefire recipe for insomnia.
Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, even on weekends to get your body in a routine.
Block out snoring. If snoring is keeping you up, try earplugs, a white-noise machine, or separate bedrooms.
Go to bed earlier. Adjust your bedtime to match when you feel like going to bed, even if that’s earlier than it used to be.
Develop soothing bedtime rituals. Taking a bath, playing music, or practicing a relaxation technique such as meditation or reading can help you wind down before bed.
Limit sleep aids and sleeping pills. Many sleep aids have side effects and are not meant for long-term use. Sleeping pills don’t address the causes of insomnia and can even make it worse in the long run.
Experiment with daytime naps if you still don’t feel fully alert during the day. A nap may provide the energy your need to perform fully for the rest of the day.
Short & Early Naps – Naps as short as five minutes can improve alertness and certain memory processes. Most people benefit from limiting naps to 15-45 minutes. You may feel groggy and unable to concentrate after a longer nap. Nap early in the afternoon so as to not disrupt nighttime sleep.
Limit caffeine late in the day. Avoid coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate late in the day.
Avoid alcohol before bedtime. It might seem that alcohol makes you sleepy, but it will actually disrupt your sleep.
Satisfy your hunger prior to bed. Have a light snack such as low-sugar cereal, yogurt, or warm milk.
Cut down on sugary foods. Eating a diet high in sugar and refined carbs such as white bread, white rice, pasta, and French fries can cause wakefulness at night and pull you out of the deep, restorative stages of sleep.
Avoid big meals or spicy foods just before bedtime. Large or spicy meals may lead to indigestion or discomfort. Try to eat a modest-size dinner at least 3 hours before bedtime.
Minimize liquid intake before sleep. Limit what you drink within the hour and a half before bedtime to limit how often you wake up to use the bathroom at night.
Swimming/water exercises. Swimming laps is a gentle way to build up fitness and is great for sore joints or weak muscles. Many community and YMCA pools have swim programs just for older adults.
Cycling or running. If you are in good shape, you can run and cycle until late in life. Both can be done outdoors or on a stationary bike or treadmill.
If your own attempts to solve your sleep problems are unsuccessful, talk with your doctor about your struggles. Write down when you use alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, and keep track of your medications, exercise, lifestyle changes, recent stresses, and the hours you sleep each night. Your doctor may then refer you to a sleep specialist for further treatment, especially if insomnia if taking a heavy toll on your mood and health.