SLEEPY SENIORS: The process of aging can affect your sleep cycle

The process of aging can affect your sleep cycle

Herald Health CorrespondentApril 30, 2013 

Remember the last time you had a really good night's sleep? If the answer is no and you're old enough to be retired, no one will promise you'll ever sleep like a teenager again but that doesn't mean you have to be perpetually tired.

Older adults often don't sleep well, but help may come from something as simple as going outside early in the morning for some sunshine. Early morning light exposure helps reset the body clock so you can fall asleep more easily at night.

You could skip the ritual nightcap; alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep but disrupts sleep later on. Or maybe you need to adjust your bedtime. Waiting until you're sleepy to go to bed makes it easier to drift off.

During sleep, the elderly will cycle through the deep stage of sleep less frequently and awaken more often than younger people.

"People feel they aren't as deeply rested. Well, unfortunately, that's one of the processes of aging," said Bradenton physician and sleep specialist David Law.

"What's not normal is fatigue and inertia," he said.

Changing the things that can be changed -- such as a medication that interferes with sleep or through treating a sleep-robbing condition such as sleep apnea -- is what can make a difference.

By far, the greatest sleep complaint of older women is insomnia, said Steven Scheer, who practices sleep medicine in Sarasota.

Insomnia affects about 12 to 15 percent of pre-menopausal women. That number triples for women who are 75, said Scheer.

Most of the new patients who come into his office because of insomnia are already taking sleeping medications, but often sleeping pills aren't the best way to overcome sleeplessness, said Scheer.

Up to three-fourths of insomniacs don't need sleep aids to get better, he said.

Changes in cognitive behavior and poor sleeping habits are what's needed. Boosting confidence about your ability to fall asleep is crucial, said Scheer. Worry will only make things worse.

Here's an example of a change that might be needed: Just because you've always gone to bed at 11 p.m. doesn't mean that same bedtime is working now. The amount of sleep you need may be different than it was in the past. If you're going to be too early, you won't be able to fall asleep easily.

Scheer recommends experimenting with bedtime if you're often lying awake or waking up tired. Start by selecting a wake-up time, then go to bed according to how many hours of sleep you want to have. If you're having trouble sleeping, move bedtime to later the next night but keep the same wake-up time.

Continue doing this until you're falling asleep more easily and feeling more refreshed during the day. You'll then know the amount of sleep you need and what time is best for you go to bed.

Other common sleep-robbers are sleep apnea that affects breathing, and restless leg syndrome when the legs involuntarily kick through the night and disrupt sleep.

Sleep apnea occurs when the throat muscles relax and obstruct breathing. It can cause loud snoring, gasping for breath and frequent awakenings. One remedy is a bedside device called a c-pap; the user fits a mask over the nostrils and the machine pumps in air to keep the airways open.

In older years, half of all men snore, said Scheer. Women don't do much better. Up to 40 percent of women begin snoring after menopause.

Often when an older person finally seeks treatment for sleep apnea is because something happened, said Scheer. For instance, the grandchildren have said they won't sleep with grandmother anymore because she snores really loud. A man who goes on fishing, hunting or golf trips may have fielded complaints from buddies that sound like he may be excluded next time.

Diagnosis often involves a sleep study that records the small, frequent awakenings that make people so tired the next day.

Meanwhile, other more mundane habits can lead to sleepless nights. Taking too many naps or nodding off in the late afternoon can make it impossible to sleep through the night.

Staying up until all hours to watch television or use the computer will hinder consistently good sleep, said Law.

"You'd be surprised by how many older people are really involved with their computers," he said.

Once the reason why you aren't sleeping is uncovered, it's likely your sleeping will improve. Even if you're not sleeping as deeply as when you were younger, you can still get enough sleep.

Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at

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