Sleepless in Silverdale – Part 1 | Senior Life 101

For many years I’ve made a habit of getting up early in the morning in order to have time for a cup of coffee, have my devotions, and read my paper. The fact is that most mornings I have meetings that begin at 7 a.m. , and so getting up early is necessary if I’m going to be able to fit it all in.

Lately, however, I find myself waking up at 4:30 a.m., when my alarm goes off, and immediately thinking how wonderful it would be if I could somehow squeeze a nap into my day.  It’s not that I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, but more likely that I wasn’t able to sleep long enough.  And there’s the rub.  Just how much sleep do we need as we age?

The fact is, as we age we often experience normal changes in our sleeping patterns. We may become sleepier earlier in the evening and may wake up earlier in the morning or enjoy less-deep sleep. However, disturbed sleep, waking up tired every day, and other symptoms of insomnia are not a normal part of aging. Sleep is just as important to our physical and emotional health in our senior years as it was when we were younger. Maybe even more so.

Poor sleep habits, lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, untreated sleep disorders, and other medical problems can all contribute to sleeplessness. And according to the experts, a good night’s sleep is especially important because it helps improve concentration and memory formation, allows your body to repair any cell damage that occurred during the day, and refreshes your immune system, which in turn helps to prevent disease.

I’m convinced that no matter what your age, sleeping well is essential to your physical health and emotional well-being. In fact, many physicians consider sleep to be a barometer of a person’s health, like taking their temperature. It’s been reported that older adults who don’t sleep well are more likely to suffer from depression, attention and memory problems, and excessive daytime sleepiness. They’re also likely to suffer more nighttime falls, have increased sensitivity to pain, and use more prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids.

Insufficient sleep can also lead to many serious health problems in older adults, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight problems, and breast cancer in women.

So, how much sleep do seniors need?

While sleep requirements vary from person to person, most healthy adults tend to require between 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health suggests that healthy older people may require about 1.5 hours less sleep than younger adults, an average of 7.5 hours per night. The study indicates that seniors sleep less even when given the opportunity for more sleep because of age-related changes in the ability to fall asleep and remain asleep.

While the results of the study may not be conclusive, it’s important to focus more on how you feel following a night’s sleep rather than the specific number of hours you spend asleep. Quality is as important as quantity.

Some seniors mistakenly believe they have a sleeping problem because they go to bed expecting to be asleep for 8 or 9 hours a night, and may even needlessly start using medications to help them sleep more. Frequently waking up not feeling rested or feeling tired during the day are better indications that you’re not getting enough sleep at night and may have a sleep problem that needs to be addressed.

Needless to say, our physical well-being is significantly tied to our ability to get the rest and sleep our body requires.  So much so, that I want to spend several columns in the next few months sharing “tips”, based on research I’ve done, that will address the importance of sleep, and how to improve our quality of life in the process.

So stay tuned until next time.

Carl R. Johnson is the community relations director Kitsap Alliance of Resources for Elders Silverdale.


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