More than 30 percent of Americans are perpetually sleep-deprived, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Sleep deficiency contributes to a wide range of potential health and safety problems. As we age, it’s important to develop and maintain good sleep patterns to help our long-term health.
Medical experts recommend that all adults should get between seven and eight hours of sleep each night, according to the CDC. And although it can be challenging for adults at any age to obtain enough quality sleep on a regular basis, some older adults have particular difficulties. Here’s why quality sleep is so important and how you can improve your sleep even as you age.
Dangers of Sleep Deprivation
Getting enough sleep is crucial for good health and basic safety. For instance, if you don’t sleep well or enough at night, you may deal with daytime sleepiness or fatigue. That lack of sleep can cause you to experience physical and mental symptoms such as slower reaction times, poor mood, inattention and trouble focusing.
Daytime sleepiness or fatigue can make you more likely to experience falls or less able to avoid accidents. If you operate machinery or a motor vehicle without enough sleep, you can put yourself and others at risk. For instance, the performance of a driver after 17 hours without sleep is as bad as driving with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent, and that of a driver after 24 hours without sleep is as dangerous as a driver with a blood alcohol level of .10 percent, according to the Sleep Health Foundation. Learn more about recognizing the signs of drowsy driving and tips to avoid falling asleep behind the wheel.
In addition to the environmental dangers of activity without proper sleep, losing sleep can also contribute to a number of serious health problems. For instance, sleeping less than seven hours per day is associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and frequent mental distress.
Common Sleep Problems
A lack of sleep can be dangerous or damaging to the health of any individual, but older people are often at greater risk for losing sleep. As you age, you may not be waking up with crying babies or lying awake worrying about a stressful situation at work, but changes to your body’s internal clock may cause you to wake up earlier.
Older adults often report having trouble falling asleep, sleeping fewer hours, waking up frequently and getting less quality sleep. In some cases, these sleep problems are the result of medications or existing conditions, such as diabetes, bladder control issues, cardiovascular conditions, arthritis or other chronic pain conditions. Diabetes or heart disease, for example, may cause you to wake more during the night to use the bathroom. However, if you’re experiencing sleep problems and you don’t have existing conditions and aren’t taking medications that could affect your sleep, you may have a primary sleep disorder, according to Healthline.
Some of the common sleep disorders experienced by older adults include:
Sleep apnea, which is marked by breathing that repeatedly starts and stops during sleep. If you’re frequently sleepy during waking hours and your partner says you snore often, you may have sleep apnea.
Restless legs syndrome (RLS), which is characterized by a nearly irresistible urge to move one’s legs and typically worsens with age. If you have an uncomfortable, “pins and needles” feeling in your legs while resting, you may have RLS.
Circadian rhythm sleep disorders, a group of sleep disorders that cause a disruption to the body’s internal clock that manages the sleep-wake cycle. Common warning signs are having difficulty falling asleep at night or difficulty waking up in the morning.
Insomnia, or habitual sleeplessness, often caused by poor sleep habits, depression, anxiety, lack of exercise, chronic illness, or certain medications. If you can’t fall sleep at bedtime, or wake up during the night and can’t go back to sleep, you may suffer from insomnia.
Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD), which causes involuntary movements of the arms and legs, which often disrupt sleep. PLMD is characterized by periodic jerking movements in the limbs (but not the tingling sensation associated with RLS). Many people with RLS also have PLMD, but those with PLMD don’t necessarily have RLS.
How to Get Better Sleep
If getting enough quality sleep each night is a challenge for you, there are several steps you can take to improve your chances. Consider the following ideas to try to boost your ability to get to sleep and stay that way all night long.
Avoid using electronic devices at least one hour before bed. The screen’s blue light can disrupt your Circadian rhythm, or natural sleep cycle.
Stick to a schedule. Try to go to bed at about the same time every night and rise at about the same time every morning.
Avoid drinking liquids before bed. Especially if you tend to wake up regularly during the night to empty your bladder, try not to drink anything for an hour or two before going to sleep.
Monitor your food intake before bed. You’ll rest better if you’re neither hungry nor stuffed when you go to sleep.
Pay attention to the effects of nicotine, caffeine and alcohol. Nicotine and caffeine can make it difficult to fall asleep. Alcohol may make you feel sleepy at first but can often lead to wakefulness later in the night.
Create a quality sleep environment. Make sure your bedroom is dark, comfy, cool (between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit) and quiet to promote the best possible sleep.
Should You Get Help?
If you’ve tried lifestyle changes but still can’t get enough quality sleep, you probably need to discuss your sleep issues with your doctor.
Start with your primary care physician, as they may be able to connect your sleep problems with an existing condition or a medication that you take. In some cases, simply changing medications may solve the problem.
However, if your sleep challenges continue or can’t be connected to an existing issue, you may need to see a sleep specialist — your primary care doctor can likely refer you someone. A sleep doctor will discuss your symptoms and conduct a physical exam. They may ask you to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks, or undergo a sleep study. In a sleep study, you sleep all night in a clinic, with sensors to monitor your breathing, body movements, heart rate and brain activity.
After a sleep study, the doctor can usually use the information gathered to diagnose whether you have a sleep disorder. If you do have one, they may treat the disorder with sleeping pills, hormone therapy or a device — for instance, if the diagnosis is apnea, you may need a CPAP device.
Together, you and your doctor can devise the best plan for achieving a good night’s sleep each night so that you can experience the safety and health benefits of being well-rested.
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