Why do we find it harder to sleep as we get older? Baby boomers are moving into the “golden” years of retirement. This is supposed to be a happy time when we can sit back and enjoy the results of you hard work over the last forty odd years. Unfortunately it’s very far from ideal for a lot of older people due to certain health problems, specifically the inability to sleep.
There is an old wives tale going around that the older you get, the less sleep you need. That is actually not true, but it’s comforting to believe that as we’re lying there at three am, wondering why we’re still awake! The fact is sleep needs don’t really change much as we age. On the contrary older adults may require more sleep as their sleep patterns tend to change.
After approximately age 50 people tend to take longer to fall asleep and experience less deep (non REM) sleep. There are physical problems that may also impact on the quality of sleep for older adults. Sleep apnea is typically though to be a sleep disorder associated with obesity, however older folk have less muscle tone, causing the tissues around the throat to collapse into the airways. This can cause breathing difficulties, snoring and of course sleep apnea.
As we age, we may have to visit the bathroom more often during the night. The interruption of sleep can be disruptive any many people can find it hard to go back to sleep after a late night bathroom visit. Women can also experience disrupted sleep caused by the hot flashes and other unpleasant symptoms of menopause. Many older people also contend with painful conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia which can keep them from falling asleep or waking them up during the night.
Despite all this, oldies need sufficient sleep for their physical and mental well-being. Research shows that older adults who lack sufficient sleep are more likely to suffer from a myriad of health complaints such as depression, diabetes, obesity and even heart disease.
So how do we achieve better sleep as we age? There’s certain things we can’t change. For instance the lack of deep sleep is caused by the slowing production of growth hormone which is related to natural aging. However most other causes of poor sleep can be overcome with the right treatment. Make sure you sleep in a totally dark room as any light can disturb sleep patterns. Get enough exercise during the day, preferably in the morning, so that you are tired at bedtime.
If you are not sleepy when it’s time to go to bed, don’t lie there and force yourself to try to sleep as this can cause insomnia, which can become a habit that’s hard to break. Circadian rhythms can change as we age. Let your body be your guide. However try to rise at the same time each morning as this will help regulate your circadian rhythm.
Try not to doze off in front of the TV at night. When you wake up to go to bed, you’ll find it hard to to to sleep again. Go to bed early if you feel sleepy and turn the TV off.
If you feel very tired during the day, take a short nap. However make sure you don’t nap for more than 20 minutes, or you could slip into the deep sleep phase which will prevent you from falling asleep that night.
The most important thing is not to lie in bed worrying about not being able to sleep. Doing this will cause stress and and that will cause a vicious cycle. Yes, we baby boomers need our sleep, but if we’re awake then so be it. There’s always tomorrow night.