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Changes in Sleep Habits that Come with Aging

sleeping habitsActually, beginning at birth, our sleep patterns and habits change as we age. We would all like to “sleep like a baby,” but even all babies don’t require the same amount of sleep, or sleep for long periods of time. As new parents, we were surprised and dismayed when we couldn’t get our infant son to go to sleep before 10:00 at night, or stay asleep later than 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. He gave up all naps at age one! He has continued that pattern of not needing much sleep into his 40’s. Our other four children had what one might consider more normal sleep patterns.

Maybe like my husband and me, you’ve had teens who seem to be able to stay up very late at night and sleep in until noon. They seem to require 8 – 10 hours of sleep, but they aren’t getting it during the hours we would like there to be peace and quiet in the house. On the other hand, from the time I was a teenager, I seemed to suffer from insomnia and sleep anxiety. I would lay awake for hours. The slightest noise would wake me up, which made sleeping in a dorm room with 3 other girls practically impossible.

As an adult, I sought a doctor’s help for my sleep problems, and for a long time I have regularly taken an antianxiety drug and a muscle relaxer to help me sleep. I get my best sleep when I am in bed before 10:00. I’m an early riser who wakes up by 5:00 or 6:00, and I feel at my most energetic and alert before noon. However as I age, another problem has crept in. I have to get up at least once or twice to use the bathroom, and sometimes I have difficulty going back to sleep after one of these nighttime “walks.” Reading in bed, although discouraged by some experts, is often my saving grace.

My husband, who is 5 years older than I am, needs help “doing the math” to convince him that he’s actually had 7 or 8 hours of sleep! Because he is a natural “night owl,” he gets better sleep if he’s up until 11:00 and then allows himself to sleep until 7:00 or 8:00. Some nights he wakes up frequently, for the bathroom and other reasons, and is sometimes awake for an hour or two in the night. But when I add it all up for him, he has to admit that he’s had quite a bit of sleep, even though it might not have been continuous. He can also nap any time any place! I can rarely nap, which other experts say is a good thing, because napping can prevent you from sleeping at night.

My 94-year-old father thinks he has trouble sleeping, but his gerontologist thinks he sleeps too much. He would like him to sleep less and move around more. Dad stays up until 10:00 or 11:00 watching TV with his “night owl” wife, but this is after he has had two naps, one for an hour or two in the morning after breakfast and another one from about 1:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon. He sleeps well during the day, and so he is adamant about getting his regular naps. He can’t see how sleeping that much during the day could be making it difficult for him to go to sleep and stay asleep at night. He takes both an herbal supplement and a prescribed sleeping pill before bed. He also gets up 2-3 times a night to use the bathroom, which he is convinced ruins his nighttime sleep. I’m sure, as we discussed in this week’s blog on caring for people with dementia, he could benefit from more meaningful activities and interaction during the day.

Experts differ on whether it is “normal” for the elderly to have significantly different sleeping patterns than younger people. This article http://www.ehow.com/info_8190633_sleeping-habits-elderly.html states that, “Elderly people have significantly different sleeping habits than their younger counterparts. Hormonal changes, health and circadian rhythm differences cause the elderly to have altered sleep patterns.” The author points out changes in length of sleep time, quality of sleep and more prevalent sleep disorders as other possible reasons for poor quality sleep and chronic fatigue.

However, this new study http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/26/elderly-sleep-habits-younger-adults_n_2166940.html purports to “debunk the perception that elderly people have wildly different sleep habits.” University of Pittsburgh researchers conducted a survey of 1,116 people ages 65 and older who are retired, and found that more than half of them get around 7.5 hours of sleep per night, at least, and sleep generally between 11 p.m. and 7:30 a.m. Adults are generally recommended to get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. “Our findings suggest that in matters regarding sleep and sleepiness, as in many other aspects of life, most seniors today are doing better than is generally thought,” said study researcher Timothy H. Monk, Ph.D., D.Sc. The study, published in the journal Healthy Aging and Clinical Care in the Elderly, showed that just 25 percent of seniors surveyed reported sleeping fewer than 6.7 hours each night. The researchers also found that a bigger predictor of sleep quality was a person’s health, versus a person’s age. And daytime sleepiness in the elderly may be more a result of things like medication side effects, not getting a good night’s rest, or having some sort of illness, versus age.

Another study from Mayo Clinic researchers shows that many elderly people may also experience sleep disorders. That 2009 study, discovered that 59 percent of 70-to-89-year-olds included in the study experienced a sleep disorder (not including insomnia). If you or a loved one is having trouble getting enough sleep, being checked by a doctor &/or tested in a sleep lab is recommended. Many chronic conditions, such as arthritis, congestive heart failure, depression, gtastroesophogeal reflux, restless leg syndrome and respiratory disorders, such as sleep apnea, can be more common as people age. “Unfortunately, sleep problems in older adults often go undiagnosed and untreated simply because many people believe sleep problems are a normal part of aging or that nothing can be done to help them sleep better. Thankfully, treating any underlying medical disorders can dramatically improve sleep.”

Certain lifestyle changes could improve anyone’s sleeping habits, no matter what their age:

  • Limit your caffeine intake to one or two servings in the morning.
  • Eat small meals throughout the day and avoid eating a large meal or sweets late in the evening.
  • Include moderate physical activity every day.
  • Avoid too much napping during the day.
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Do something relaxing during the hour or so before bedtime.
  • Don’t drink too much liquid before bed.
  • Try reading vs. watching TV as an activity that might help to induce sleep.

If you want to “sleep like a baby” tonight, make sure you know which baby’s sleep you would like to imitate. And remember, you might not need as much sleep as you used to. If reading this didn’t make you sleepy, you’re probably doing okay.

By Marti Lythgoe, Freelance Writer & Editor



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