Getting a good night’s sleep
Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.
Nothing beats a good night’s sleep. But as we get older, many adults find a restful night’s sleep harder and harder to come by. The physical changes that accompany aging, coupled with changes in our habits and medication, often lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep. In fact, studies show that sleep disorders increase as we grow older.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 44 percent of older adults report the symptoms of insomnia more than once a week. Unfortunately, older adults still need the same amount of sleep in their later years as they did when they were young. While the amount of sleep needed varies from person to person — seven to eight hours a night is recommended — adequate sleep remains an important part of our overall heath, even as we age.
There are many reasons why restful sleep is more elusive for older adults. Changes to prescription medicines or the way the body processes medications can affect sleep patterns, as can the use of alcohol or illegal drugs. Getting up to urinate often throughout the night, or the pain caused by physical ailments such as arthritis or heart disease also make it difficult to sleep.
Another problem can be advanced sleep phase syndrome, a condition in which the body’s internal clock tells a person to go to sleep and wake up earlier than normal. Sleep patterns can also be disrupted by neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
For seniors who don’t get a good night’s sleep, the problems may be greater than just being grouchy the next morning. Periods of prolonged sleeplessness can lead to problems with brain function, compromised immunity and increased risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.
When we sleep, energy is restored to our bodies, and the tissues in our bodies are grown and repaired, including new brain cells. Stages of deep sleep are especially important to maintaining brain function, including memory and alertness. Interruptions to the sleep cycle in its early stages restart the cycle and can make it difficult to get to those deeper stages of sleep.
What’s more, a lack of sleep can affect the way our bodies produce the antibodies needed to fight off harmful bacteria and viruses, such as those that cause the common cold. In fact, research has shown that adults who sleep fewer than six hours a night are more likely to catch a cold. The effects of a poor night’s sleep can be devastating to older adults with weaker immune systems.
Increased blood pressure is another possible result of poor sleep. This, linked to an increased production of inflammatory agents which also result from a lack of sleep, can put a person at greater risk for heart disease. While we sleep, our bodies also regulate some of the hormones linked to appetite, which means that as we sleep less, we may want to eat more. This can result in overeating and possibly even obesity.
Too little sleep can also affect the hormones that regulate the production of insulin and the stress hormones that prevent insulin from working effectively. As a result, older adults suffering from insomnia or other sleep disorders are put at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes.
While it may become more difficult to get the proper rest as we age, there are some thing that older adults can do to get their bodies back on the path to a restful night’s sleep.
Exercise regularly and get outdoors if possible. Getting out in the sunshine during the day helps regulate the body’s internal clock, and exercise has been shown to help you fall asleep.
— Follow a regular schedule for meals, exercise, bathing and other activities, including getting ready for bed. As your body adjusts to the pattern of the schedule, it will expect bedtime – and sleep – to come at the same time every night.
— Long naps during the day confuse the body’s internal clock and should be avoided. Although short naps, around 30 minutes, can be helpful, it’s hard for a person to feel tired at night when they’ve been napping for long periods of time during the day.
— Sleep in a dark, cool room. Turn off the television, computer or smartphone at least an hour before bed, and keep them off during the night. Turn off all artificial lights, and keep the curtains closed to prevent outside light from entering the room. Keep the thermostat set at 70 degrees or lower since higher temperatures can affect sleep.
— Stay away from caffeine late in the day. Caffeine is a stimulant, and too much coffee or cola too close to bedtime can keep your body from feeling tired.
Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home assessment, call 330-332-1203.