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Senior Health

Sleep & Aging: How They Relate

Reviewed by: MySeniorCare Staff
Last Updated: 4/14/2010 10:33:26 AM

Many people, including older people themselves, believe that you need less sleep as you age. The truth is that as you age you get less sleep—not that you need it less.

Here are several reasons why older people get less sleep and what to do about it.

Poor sleeping habits. Many people 65 and older don't do the right things to promote a healthy night's sleep. They may be inactive and bored during the day and take too many naps, especially after dinner. Napping too close to bedtime can, of course, prevent an older person from getting enough sleep at night. Alcohol or a "nightcap" does not promote sleep. Quite the contrary. Although it may induce sleepiness, it actually works to disrupt your sleep.

Depression. The hallmark symptom of depression is trouble sleeping—trouble falling asleep and waking very early. At this time in their lives, older people may suffer many losses, such as the death of a spouse, partner or sibling. They may have to leave their homes. These losses often trigger depression, leading to insomnia.

Pain and illness. Back spasms, headaches, arthritis, fibromyalgia, cancer and many other conditions cause pain which will keep an older person awake at night. Other medical conditions that can rob a person of sleep include asthma and diabetes, heartburn and several others.

Sleep disorders. There are a number of sleep disorders that can give older people a bad night. One of the most common is Restless Legs Syndrome—RLS. This condition involves strange sensations that make individuals feel they must move their legs continuously while in a prone or resting position. Other conditions that disturb sleep include snoring and sleep apnea which occur more often in older people.

Medications. Older people often take several medications. Some of these—including those for anxiety or depression—can cause agitation or wakefulness at night. Some medicines can cause bad dreams which wake people up from sleep.

Tips for a Better Night's Sleep

If you are an older person yourself having trouble sleeping or you are or will be a caretaker for an older person, here are some tips to ensure a better night's sleep:

  • See your doctor about any medications that may be causing insomnia. Discuss any pain, illnesses or sleep disorders that may be interrupting your sleep.
  • Stay active during the day through exercise, socializing with friends or family. This will give your body a good tiredness that will promote sleep during the night.
  • Take a nap if you need to, but not close to bedtime.
  • Avoid stimulants before going to bed—caffeine, alcohol, nicotine. But make sure you're not hungry. Hunger can awake you.
  • Try to stick to a schedule of going to bed and getting up the same time every day.
  • If you feel tired earlier than you used to, then go to bed then. Don't wait for the "right" time to go to bed.
  • Don't drink too many fluids before bedtime to cut down on the need to urinate in the middle of the night.
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