There are many reasons that getting a good night of sleep may become more of a struggle as you age.
It’s important to pinpoint any problems you have — and take steps to correct them. It all comes down to the quality of your life, and solid, restful sleep certainly contributes to an overall feeling of wellbeing.
Sleep is vital for the body for many reasons. It helps flush toxins from your brain and allows your body to rest.
Some people find they need less sleep as they age, but most still aim for seven or eight hours each night — about right for adults beyond age 65, according to recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation.
Disrupted sleep and still feeling tired when you wake up every day are not a normal part of aging.
Losing sleep every night makes you more susceptible to nighttime falls and injuries and less ready and able to enjoy life during the daytime.
What’s keeping you up?
Physiological changes sometimes make it more difficult to sleep as you get older, according to sleep medicine specialist Harneet Walia, MD.
Almost all medical conditions can disrupt sleep due to pain or discomfort associated with them. These include heart disease, arthritis, gastrointestinal issues, neuropathy and lung problems.
Alzheimer’s disease also sometimes contributes to insomnia. “Alzheimer’s disease can lead to circadian rhythm changes, which are caused by specific lesions in the circadian pathways,” Dr. Walia says.
As we grow older, slow wave sleep declines; this is what we think of as deeper, more restful sleep.
Also, with increasing age, your upper airway becomes more collapsible and you can develop obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), Dr. Walia says.
Some symptoms of OSA are snoring, pauses in breathing difficulty sleeping and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Trading your bad habits for good
When it comes to insomnia, sometimes simple steps can change bad habits and pave the way for better sleep.
A few suggestions:
- Limit daytime napping.
- Don’t eat a heavy meal before bed.
- Turn off your screens (televisions, tablets, smartphones) at least an hour or so before bed.
- Make time to read, listen to soothing music or take a warm bath to relax and prepare for sleep.
- Limit or avoid alcohol and caffeine, especially in the evening.
- Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature (cooler is often better, so you won’t wake up overheated).
- Limit fluids in the evening, so you won’t have to get up for the bathroom in the night.
- Get regular exercise earlier in the day.
- If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep within 20 minutes or so, get up and read or relax for a short time until you feel sleepy again.
Dr. Walia does not recommend over-the-counter sleep aids and prescription medications for older adults. They often are associated with serious side effects.
“You have to be very cautious with medication, because there are always more risks associated with sleep aids, risks of falls, and other adverse consequences,” she says.
Getting help for stubborn insomnia
Those who have insomnia may regularly take a long time (more than 30 to 45 minutes) to fall asleep, wake up frequently during the night, wake up too early or wake up still feeling tired despite having an adequate opportunity to sleep.
If these signs continue for more than a few weeks, and a few habit adjustments don’t help, it’s a good idea to see your doctor or a sleep specialist. He or she will help pinpoint what is disrupting your sleep and help you address the problem.
This clinician will likely ask you a series of questions and perform a sleep test if needed to get more detail on your sleep habits:
- What time do you go to bed?
- What do you do before going to bed?
- How many times do you wake up?
- How long does it take you to fall back to sleep?
- How does not sleeping affect your daytime functioning?
Dr. Walia says talking to your doctor about cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, can help if you continue to lose sleep.
CBT is a form of talk therapy that teaches you how to improve your sleep environment, reduce stress, use relaxation techniques and better manage your sleep schedule.
She says CBT is the safe and an effective option for improving your sleep.
It’s important to address your insomnia. Otherwise, over time, it contributes to depression, attention and memory problems, difficulty carrying out daily tasks, less interest in activities and, generally, a poorer quality of life.
By taking charge of your sleep and making it a priority, you can enjoy a variety of health benefits.