When Counting Sheep Isn't Enough: Improving Sleep as We Age

When Counting Sheep Isn’t Enough: Improving Sleep As We Age

Sleep. It is a hot topic in the news right now and an absolute necessity to our health and well-being. If you are an older adult and find you are having trouble sleeping, there is hope! You are not alone! According to the National Sleep Foundation, over 44% of older persons experience one or more of the nighttime symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights per week, if not more.

It is a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age. Sleep is just as important to our physical and emotional health over the age of 50 as it was when we were younger. The standard remains that the average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. However, how you FEEL following a night’s sleep is more important than the specific number of hours you spend asleep.
Sleep patterns naturally change as you get older and it is common for older adults to sleep less deeply and for less time than they did earlier in life. It may be harder for an older person to FALL asleep, and they may find that they have more difficulty STAYING asleep. In addition, they may be less satisfied with their sleep and feel more tired during the day.

A recent study by the National Cancer Institute revealed the following about sleep in older people compared to their younger counterparts:
- Older people tend to sleep fewer hours and take longer to fall asleep.
- Older people tend to sleep less deeply and wake more often during the night.
- Older people tend to have more trouble adjusting to changes in sleeping conditions such as a different bed.
- They often have changes in their actual sleep CYCLE in that they spend less time in the most restful stages of sleep.

As a result, routine poor-quality sleep may increase an older person’s risk for serious health problems. In fact, many physicians consider sleep to be a barometer of a person’s overall health.
The National Sleep Institute reports that insomnia is often caused by underlying, but easily remedied problems, the most common of which are a poor sleep environment and poor sleep and daytime habits. Stress, depression, traumatic events, and worry also can contribute to insomnia, as well as irregular sleep hours, falling asleep with the television on, pain, and even some medications.

Before we explore some practical ideas for improving the quality of our sleep, let’s look at a few random little known facts about sleep. For example, did you know:
-man is the only mammal that willingly DELAYS sleep.
-the higher the altitude, the greater the sleep disruption (however, most people adjust to new altitudes within 2-3 weeks).
-we naturally feel tired at two different times of day: about 2:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
-sleep is just as important as diet and exercise.

Now let’s look at some things you can try to improve the quality as well as the quantity of sleep you are getting. Some suggestions include:
1. Get regular exercise and sunshine during the day.
2. Keep your bedroom cool, quiet and dark in the evening and night.
3. Keep food and snacks out of the bed if possible.
4. Get out of bed if you are unable to sleep and do a quiet or boring activity until you feel sleepy.
5. Follow the same evening and bedtime routines.

Other tips include taking some time to relax before you go to sleep, turn off your computer and TV at least an hour before bed, limit daytime naps, and stick to a regular bedtime.
In summary, getting a good night’s sleep is important to your mental and physical well-being. It is especially important because it can improve concentration and memory formation, it allows your body to repair any cell damage that may have occurred during the day, and it refreshes your immune system. By practicing a few simple changes to your routine, hopefully you will enjoy improved sleep and in turn an improved quality of life.