There is a reason for the phrase “I slept like a baby” when describing a good night’s rest. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, once people reach adulthood approximately 30 percent have symptoms of insomnia. For people over age 60, that number climbs to about 50 percent. As people age, they have a hard time falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep and often wake up too early, unable to go back to bed. It’s no surprise that people who are sleep deprived don’t feel well-rested the next day.
You may wonder why a baby—or even a teenager or college student— sleeps so soundly while nearly a third of adults struggle with insomnia. Simply put, older adults’ body clocks are completely different than the finely-tuned body clock that ticked inside us in our youth. Older adults are less likely to sleep for long periods of time. Sleep is not as deep, and there is a greater tendency to wake during the night.
As we age, our body clock (actually our body’s physiological functions), may cause us to produce less of the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep. Increased sensitivity to changes around us, such as lighting, noise or a new environment may cause us to awake more frequently. More than half of pre-menopausal and menopausal women are affected by insomnia. However, insomnia is actually more common in men than women.
Aging may also bring on additional medical problems that can affect sleep. If medications are prescribed for other health issues, these can also be a factor contributing to insomnia.
Contrary to popular belief, older adults still need seven to eight hours of sleep each night to function well—and safely. Lack of sleep or continued poor quality sleep can affect our daily routines, from making us moody, irritable and tired, to lack of concentration… all of which can lead to inadequate job performance or even contribute to accidents.
Older adults should not despair, however. Lifestyle adjustments can be made to help promote better sleep—some more obvious than others. Avoid caffeine starting in the afternoon, as well as limit alcoholic beverages. Smoking is problematic, as nicotine is a stimulant that can interfere with sleep. Exercise in general will help you sleep better and stay healthy, be it as simple as walking, gardening or dancing, but avoid workout routines closer to bedtime. Bedtime rituals, such as a relaxing bath or shower, listening to soothing music or taking some time for quiet reflection can also help ready our bodies for sleep. Avoid liquid intake about 90 minutes before bed—this decreases the likelihood of needing to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep as a result. Sunshine may also contribute to improved sleep. Bright sunlight increases melatonin, the very sleep regulating hormone that our body produces less of as we age.
We might also learn a lesson from the sleeping baby or toddler who is rejuvenated from a nap. Try a brief nap of between 15 minutes to an hour (no longer), in the late morning or early afternoon. Avoid napping later in the day or close to bedtime.
When Insomnia is More Than Just a Symptom of Aging
Although insomnia is common in older adults and may be mitigated by lifestyle changes, for some people it can be a serious problem or indicative of a more critical health concern. If you attempt to address your insomnia on your own without much success, contact us to see if we can come up with a plan that will work for you. Please do not lose any sleep worrying about it!