As we age we often experience normal changes in our sleeping patterns, such as becoming sleepy earlier, waking up earlier, or enjoying less deep sleep. However, disturbed sleep, waking up tired every day, and other symptoms of insomnia are not a normal part of aging. Sleep is just as important to our physical and emotional health as it was when we were younger.
In fact, a good night’s sleep is especially important to older adults because it helps improve concentration and memory formation, allows your body to repair any cell damage that occurred during the day, and refreshes your immune system, which in turn helps to prevent disease. If you’re struggling in this area, but are unsure of what to do, here’s some advice to help you cope.
Identify the Underlying Problems
Many cases of insomnia are caused by underlying but very treatable causes. By identifying all possible causes, you can tailor treatment accordingly. These are some common issues:
- Poor sleep habits and sleep environment.These include irregular sleep hours, consumption of alcohol before bedtime, and falling asleep with the TV on. Make sure your room is comfortable, dark and quiet, and your bedtime rituals conducive to sleep.
- Pain or medical conditions.Health conditions such as a frequent need to urinate, pain, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, nighttime heartburn, and Alzheimer’s can interfere with sleep. Talk to your doctor to address these issues directly.
- Menopause and post menopause. During menopause, many women find that hot flashes and night sweats can interrupt sleep. Even post menopause, sleep problems can continue. Improving your daytime habits, especially diet and exercise, can help.
- Older adults tend to take more medications than younger people and the combination of drugs, as well as their side effects, can impair sleep. Your doctor may be able to make changes to your medications to improve sleep. Never make these changes on your own, however.
- Lack of exercise.If you are too sedentary, you may never feel sleepy or feel sleepy all the time. Regular aerobic exercise during the day can promote good sleep.
- Significant life changes like the death of a loved one or moving from a family home can cause stress. Nothing improves your mood better than finding someone you can talk to face-to-face.
- Lack of social engagement.Social activities, family, and work can keep your activity level up and prepare your body for a good night’s sleep. If you’re retired, try volunteering, joining a seniors’ group, or taking an adult education class.
- Sleep disorders.Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and sleep-disordered breathing—such as snoring and sleep apnea – occur more frequently in older adults.
- Lack of sunlight. Bright sunlight helps regulate melatonin and your sleep-wake cycles. Try to get at least two hours of sunlight a day. Keep shades open during the day or use a light therapy box, which are usually fairly inexpensive.
How to Encourage Better Sleep
- Naturally boost your melatonin levels.Artificial lights at night can suppress your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. Use low-wattage bulbs where safe to do so, and turn off the TV and computer at least one hour before bed.
- Don’t read from a backlit device at night (such as an iPad).If you use a portable electronic device to read, use an eReader that is not backlit, i.e. one that requires an additional light source. And when possible, a good old-fashioned book is the best way to read!
- Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool,and your bed is comfortable. Noise, light, and heat can cause sleep problems. Try using a sleep mask to help block out light.
- Move bedroom clocks out of view.The light can disrupt your sleep and anxiously watching the minutes tick by is a surefire recipe for insomnia.
Improve Sleep Through Exercise
Exercise—especially aerobic activity—releases chemicals in your body that promote more restful sleep.
There are countless activities you can do to prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep at the end of the day. But always consult your doctor before embarking on any new fitness program!
- Water exercises– Swimming laps is a gentle way to build up fitness and is great for sore joints or weak muscles. Many community and YMCA pools have swim programs just for older adults, as well as water-based exercise classes.
- Dance– If you love to move to music, go dancing or take a dance class. Dance classes are also a great way to extend your social network.
- Golf– Golf is another exercise that doesn’t require vigorous movement. Walking adds an aerobic bonus and spending time on the course with friends can improve your mood, not to mention the melatonin boost from the sunlight.
- Cycle or run– If you are in good shape, you can run and cycle until late in life. Both can be done outdoors or on a stationary bike or treadmill.
If your own attempts to solve your sleep problems are unsuccessful, talk to your doctor. Keep a sleep diary and bring it with you. Write down when you use alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, and keep track of your medications, exercise, lifestyle changes, and recent stresses. Your doctor may then refer you to a sleep specialist or cognitive behavioral therapist for further treatment. You can get better sleep by taking control and being aware of what your body and mind need!