Insomnia is a common complaint in the elder years. In fact, 44 percent of older Americans surveyed reported that they had some sort of difficulty with sleep at least a few nights a week. It’s also a common misbelief that as we age, we need less sleep and sleep disturbances may be disregarded by caretakers and even medical professionals.

As people age, they have a harder time falling and staying asleep but research demonstrates that our sleep needs actually remain the same throughout adulthood. So, no matter what you or others believe, elders do need as much sleep as younger adults but they are often not getting it. In some cases, underlying medical conditions may be partly to blame such as:

  • A need to urinate
  • Snoring
  • Sleep apnea
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
  • Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD)
  • Congestive-obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • These medical conditions may contribute to sleep deprivation but they can also can also cause medical issues of their own. Some of these medical complications may include:

  • Increased risk of obesity
  • Increased risk of cardiac death
  • Decreased decision making ability
  • Decreased attention span
  • Sleep apnea has been shown to cause some of these effects – even if elders are spending the right number of hours in bed – as the brain and other tissues aren’t getting enough oxygen and the sleep cycle is disrupted. But in addition, sleep deprivation may also increase the processes of aging, hastening changes that may have happened over a longer period of time.

    If a senior has underlying medical conditions, they should be appropriately treated by a medical professional. This may alleviate some of the sleep deprivation but lifestyle changes may also help. Most of these changes are applicable to younger people as well.

    Practice good sleep “hygiene”

    This means that your sleep schedule should be organized. That is repeated the same way every day. The elder should go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. This helps set the circadian rhythm.

    Avoid late night activity

    Anything that activates the brain late at night – exercise, social activities, caffeine, and late meals – can keep the brain from “shutting off” when it should.

    Avoid the light at night

    Seniors should avoid going into bright light in the evenings and should sleep in a darkened room. It’s also a good idea to turn off electronic devices at night and eliminate the bright lighting from the screen.

    Bedrooms are for sleeping

    Bedrooms should be used for sleeping. Avoid watching television or reading in bed and do not treat it as a multi-purpose room. Your brain knows that when you go to bed, you should sleep. If you perform other activities, the brain’s messages can get confused.

    Sleep in a cool environment

    Just like the room is supposed to be dark, it should also be cool. People who sleep in hot rooms may not sleep as well as the body knows it should be cooler at night. Think of a “mini” hibernation. It shouldn’t be so cold that you freeze but it should be cool enough for a light blanket.

    Changing and maintaining good, regular sleep practice may not solve all of a senior’s insomnia but basic lifestyle changes can have a positive impact. If there are medical conditions, seek help.

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