Contrary to popular belief, older adults require just as much sleep as they did when they were younger --not less. Medical research has verified that sleep problems are not a normal part of aging, though they are a common problem. Fortunately, it's a problem you can do something about.
A recent University of Pittsburg study (published in The Archives of
) reported that two-thirds of older adults were able to improve sleep by making behavioral changes only, with no drugs prescribed.
The study distilled its advice into four rules: Reduce the time spent in bed, (i.e. don't stay there for 12 hours trying to get 6 hours of good sleep.) Get up at the same time every day. Don't go to bed until you feel sleepy. Don't stay in bed if you're not sleeping. The program was explained to participants, who were given sleep diaries to track their progress. Nurse practitioners offered counseling, and did follow-up checks. The researchers believe it was a winning combination.
Change before medication
In general, doctors prefer that older adults try and fix their sleep problems at home, before resorting to taking sleeping pills. Sleep medications can cause daytime drowsiness and impair memory, and they're also associated with falls. Ironically, lack of good sleep causes problems too.
"A lack of sleep may create physical and mental issues during the day," says Reed Engel, director of wellness at Mather Lifeways. Engel educates senior residents at Mather communities and cafes about a lot of things, including sleep.
Engel says there are a lot of myths about sleep that people bring up at his presentations. The biggest one is that drinking alcohol promotes better sleep. "It makes you drowsy, but it may cause you to wake in the night, possibly because it dehydrates you," Engel says.
Engel says you should not hesitate to discuss sleep problems with your doctor because the cause could be a medical condition such as
. Medications or stress may also be factors. Or it may just be your cat walking around on your bed at night.
"If your lifestyle is interrupting your sleep, you can solve some of those issues on your own," Engel says.
Get some zzz's
Here are some specific tips from MatherLifeways for correcting your own sleep problems. Try these one at a time, and keep a journal of your sleep so you can tell if the change you have made is working.
Keep a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, even on weekends.
Make sure the sleep environment is optimal. Most people sleep a little better if it's cool and have trouble if it's hot.
Limit the amount of outside noise. However, some find that white noise is helpful, such as a sound machine or a fan.
If there is a street light or car lights flashing on the walls, try light blocker blinds, a sleep mask, or move the bed.
Don't just lie there getting frustrated. Get up and go back to a relaxing activity. Move the clock --don't stare at it.
Be engaged. Social activities, family, and work can keep activity levels up and prepare the body for a good night's sleep.
While napping can be a great "re-charger" there are some caveats: Nap for only 15-30 minutes. A longer nap may create a groggy feeling, making it difficult to concentrate. Nap early in the afternoon. Napping too late in the day may disrupt nighttime sleep. Nap in a comfortable environment with limited light and noise.
Get a little sunlight. Bright sunlight increases melatonin, which regulates sleep-wake cycles. Try to get at least two hours of sunlight a day.
Block out snoring. If a snoring bed-mate is an issue, try ear plugs, a white-noise machine, or separate bedrooms.
. Nicotine is a stimulant and can keep you awake. If you can't quit, avoid smoking within three hours of bedtime.
Develop bedtime routines. A soothing ritual, like taking a bath or playing music will help the mind and body wind down.
Examine and adjust your diet. Limit caffeine from coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate late in the day. Satisfy hunger prior to bed by having a light snack such as crackers, cereal and milk, or yogurt or warm milk.
Avoid alcohol before bedtime. Don't use alcohol as a sleeping aid.
Minimize liquid intake during the hour and a half before bedtime.