“It seems like the older I get the more lightly I sleep. “ “I never seem to sleep a night all the way through anymore!”
Do you ever find yourself saying that, or notice your parents doing so? Most people would probably say, pshaw, it just seems like that.
But actually science has shown that our sleep patterns do change as we age. Studies say that for not just some but for most people, the older we get the harder it will be to fall asleep and to stay asleep.
For everyone, sleep is a cycle of dreamless periods of light and deep sleep, with active dreaming (REM sleep) only occurring occasionally. But as we age, we spend less time in deep sleep. And older people often do wake more, both because of more time in light sleep and because of the need to urinate, anxiety, discomfort, or pain associated with chronic illness.
If you just lie awake longer than you used to before finally falling asleep, or wake up briefly two to four times per night, your symptoms may just be age-related.
If you lose more than half an hour of sleep per night over a period of time, you may be looking at more serious sleep problems, such as insomnia. Sleep problems are so common among seniors that a National Institute on Aging study showed that half of all men and women over age 65 have at least one chronic sleep problem.
Sleep apnea is a sleeping disturbance in which the rhythm of breathing is disrupted, with the person stopping breathing at all for a period of time. Sleep apnea needs to be checked out, because it may have serious cardiovascular, pulmonary, and central nervous system effects.
If you’re having a lot of trouble sleeping, try these tricks before resorting to medication:
- Eat a light bedtime snack. Consider drinking warm milk, because it contains a sedative-like substance.
- Avoid caffeine for at least three or four hours before bed.
- Don’t nap during the day.
- Exercise moderately in the afternoon.
- Get on a regular sleep cycle—abed by 10 and up by five every day, for example.
- Use the bed only for sleep or sexual activity.
If you get in bed, lie down, turn out the light and close your eyes and then lie there for 20 minutes without falling asleep, get back out of bed and do a quiet activity, such as listening to music or reading. When you feel sleepy, try again. If another 20 minutes goes by, repeat.
If you decide you have a sleeping problem serious enough to require even just over-the-counter medication, be sure to talk it over with your doctor. Medications affect seniors differently, sometimes much more strongly, than younger people.
It’s better not to get started on sleep medications at all, if you can avoid it; if you can’t, take them for as short a time as possible. Some sleeping pills can lead to dependence or addiction. Some of them build up in your body and have toxic effects after a certain point. They can also cause confusion, delirium, and falls.
In short, mild sleeping disturbances are a normal part of aging, but if you’re experiencing more than that, have it checked out.