Senior Life 101: Sleepless in Silverdale – Part 2

In my previous column, we began a discussion on the subject of “sleep” and just how much of it we need as we age.

I suggested that our physical well-being is significantly tied to our ability to get the rest and sleep our body requires. This month I offer tips concerning the importance of sleep, and how to improve our quality of life in the process.

First, I must acknowledge Lawrence Robinson, Gina Kemp, M.A., and Robert Segal, M.A., contributors to Helpguide.org, for their great insights and practical counsel. Their articles have contributed significantly into my research on this subject.

Understand how sleep changes as you age

Some change in your sleep patterns are natural as you age. Your body produces lower levels of growth hormone, so you’ll likely experience a decrease in deep sleep, and less melatonin often means more fragmented sleep (more rapid sleep cycles) and more awakenings between sleep cycles. As your body “rhythm” (the internal clock that tells you when to sleep and when to wake up) changes, you may also find yourself wanting to go to sleep earlier in the evening and waking up earlier in the morning. If you don’t adjust your bedtimes to these changes, you may find that you have difficulty falling and staying asleep.

As we get older we also tend to wake up more often during the night. Consequently, you may have to spend longer in bed at night to get the hours of sleep you need, or you may have to make up the shortfall by taking a nap during the day. In most cases, such sleep changes are normal and don’t indicate a sleep problem.

Find out why you can’t sleep well

Many cases of insomnia are caused by underlying but very treatable causes. While emotional issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression can cause insomnia, the most common causes in seniors are a poor sleep environment and poor sleep and daytime habits, such as irregular sleep hours, consumption of alcohol before bedtime, and falling asleep with the TV on.

In addition, pain can keep you from sleeping well. In fact, many health conditions such as a frequent need to urinate, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, nighttime heartburn, and Alzheimer’s can interfere with sleep.

Restless Legs Syndrome and sleep-disordered breathing such as snoring and sleep apnea occur more frequently in older adults.

Seniors tend to take more medications than younger people. Combinations of drugs, as well as the side-effects of individual drugs, can impair sleep or even stimulate wakefulness.

If you are too stationary, you may not feel sleepy. Regular aerobic exercise during the day, at least three hours before bedtime, can promote good sleep.

Significant life changes like the death of a loved one or moving from a family home can cause stress. Anxiety or sadness can also keep you awake, which can, in turn, cause more anxiety or depression. Many people, after suffering a loss, may lie in bed and try to force themselves to sleep. Eventually their bodies learn not to sleep. Even after your original reason for sleep disruption has passed, the learned response of not sleeping can remain.

Try to identify all possible causes of your insomnia. Once you figure out the root cause, you can tailor treatment accordingly. For example, are you under a lot of stress? Are you depressed? Do you feel emotionally flat or hopeless? Do you struggle with chronic feelings of anxiety or worry? Have you recently gone through a traumatic experience? Are you taking any medications that might be affecting your sleep? Do you have any health problems that may be interfering with sleep?

You may need a doctor, or trusted family member or friend to help you sort out the potential “root cause” that is contributing to your insomnia. But once you are able to identify the cause, there are ways to help you get the rest you need.

In my next column I want to share some ways that we can improve our sleep habits.


Carl R. Johnson

Community Relations Director

Kitsap Alliance of Resources for Elders Silverdale, WA

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