How Does Sleep Change As We Age

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Getting older changes many things about our lives — and it’s not just a few more gray hairs or less energy to keep up with the grandchildren. Aging can have a profound effect on sleep, as well, making it more difficult to get the recommended 7-8 hours each night. 

Our sleep needs change throughout our lives, from the time we’re newborns and require up to 20 hours of rest per day through adulthood, when most people function best with about eight hours of sleep per night. The problem is that the older we get, the more difficult it becomes to get restful sleep. In fact, sleep problems including sleep apnea, disrupted sleep-wake cycles, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome (RLS) are higher among older adults than in other age groups. 

Doctors attribute these changes in sleep to several factors, but with some lifestyle changes and help from a healthcare provider, it is possible to improve sleep and avoid the effects of chronic sleep deprivation. 

What Causes Age-Related Sleep Changes

Sleep changes, in terms of both duration and quality, occur as we age for several reasons. Among the most common:

Hormone Changes. Aging reduces the secretion of several key sleep-inducing hormones, including melatonin. Melatonin helps control the sleep-wake cycle, and reduced amounts make it more difficult to fall asleep. Other hormonal changes include changes in the female hormones estrogen and progesterone during menopause, and a reduction of the human growth hormone, the chemical that allows for deeper sleep in children.

Chronic Health Conditions. Sleep problems are associated with several chronic health conditions related to aging, including chronic pain from arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, respiratory disease, and changes in bladder control. Any one of these conditions can contribute to sleep problems, which are often exacerbated by the medications taken to manage them. Blood pressure medications, corticosteroids for arthritis, and other common medications are all known to disrupt sleep. 

Lifestyle Changes. Daily activities can also determine how well you sleep; as you might expect, being active during the day can help you sleep better at night. However, many older adults slow down as they age, getting less exercise and spending more time indoors. Exposure to sunlight helps increase melatonin production, with at least two hours of exposure to natural light ideal for optimum production. Other habits that can disrupt sleep are regular napping, smoking, and using alcohol and caffeine. 

These are just some of the reasons sleep changes as we age. Regardless of the cause, chronic sleep deprivation shouldn’t be ignored, as it can have a profound effect on your mood, cognitive abilities, and overall health. 

Living With Sleep Changes

Although we can’t stop the march of time, we can reduce the effects that it has on our bodies and health. If you aren’t sleeping as well as you used to, begin by talking to your healthcare provider. Depending on the severity of your issue, your doctor may order a sleep study to rule out a primary sleep disorder like sleep apnea, which can be dangerous if not treated. During a sleep study, you’ll spend a night in a sleep lab to be monitored via sensors measuring your heart rate, breathing, brain activity, and movement. Depending on the results of your study, your doctor may diagnose a primary disorder that needs further treatment, or determine that your insomnia is a secondary disorder or a symptom of another problem. 

Generally speaking, most doctors are reluctant to prescribe medication for sleep disorders in the elderly because the drugs can be addictive, and may have unwanted side effects. Often, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the first course of action. In sleep behavioral therapy, you’ll learn techniques for getting and staying asleep. Studies show that CBT can measurably improve sleep quality, especially for people with insomnia. 

You can improve your sleep as you age without a doctor’s help as well. Making lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise each day and cutting back on caffeine, can go a long way toward improving sleep. Developing good sleep hygiene can also help. This includes going to bed at the same time each night, only using your bed for sleep or sex, reducing or avoiding naps, and maintaining a cool, dark environment for sleeping. It’s also helpful to limit liquids before bed, to reduce the number of times you wake up to use the bathroom, and stick to quiet and restful activities like reading before turning in. 

Changes to sleep patterns as you age are inevitable, but they don’t have to be disruptive and harmful to your health. Understanding why you’re having trouble sleeping, and taking steps to correct those issues, can go a long way toward ensuring you get a good night’s rest and stay healthy throughout your Golden Years.

About Becky



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