If you’ve had bouts of insomnia as an older adult, turns out you’re not alone. The National Institutes of Health describe insomnia as the most common sleep problem among adults over 60 years of age.
Contrary to common belief, insomnia isn’t simply the inability to fall asleep. It also encompasses symptoms like waking up multiple times during the night and waking up early and not being able to fall back asleep.
Sleep can also be disrupted by conditions like sleep apnea (short pauses in breathing while you sleep), movement disorders (like restless leg syndrome), and cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s.
The truth is, as you age, your sleep patterns can change and not necessarily for the better. While difficulty sleeping isn’t considered a “normal” part of aging, it certainly isn’t rare, and knowing more about the consequences of losing sleep and how to enhance sleep patterns for better health is a must, especially for older adults.
The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation
The negative side effects of not getting enough sleep can be felt immediately as well as in the long-term. Even one night of poor sleep can lead to:
- Waking up tired
- Feeling groggy during the day
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty learning new things
- Misplacing objects (i.e. keys)
- Depressed mood
- Problems with memory
Research has also linked lack of sleep to increased risk for Alzheimer’s as well as increased risk of falling. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research which specifically studied over 150,000 women over multiple years found that those who had short sleep, poor sleep quality, sleep disturbances, and insomnia were more likely to experience recurrent falls as well as fractures from falls.
Seniors and their caregivers know that a single fall can be the first domino to tip in a cascade of debilitating health problems. Falls can lead to an array of injuries from hip fractures, to brain trauma, and sprains like hyperextended elbow (see an injury guide for hyperextended elbow here: https://www.vivehealth.com/blogs/resources/hyperextended-elbow). With an estimated 1 in 4 older adults experiencing a fall every year, the connection between poor sleep and falling becomes even starker.
Did you know that incidences of traffic accidents also increase among people with poor or limited sleep? A 2018 report shared in BMC Medicine found a strong correlation in the general population between sleep deficiency and motor vehicle crashes. Specifically, researchers found that sleeping only 6 hours per night was associated with a whopping 33 percent increase in crash risk.
How Much Sleep Should Older Adults Get?
The amount of sleep older adults should aim for each night is based on several factors. Age-related changes in the body that can interrupt normal sleep patterns include reductions in the brain’s secretion of melatonin, the hormone that cues the body for sleep, as well as an increase in the sensitivity to environmental noise and light.
Roughly 60 percent of older adults live with at least two chronic illnesses too and many major medical conditions (and prescription medications) can contribute to problems like insomnia and sleep apnea as well.
Sleep allows the body the downtime it needs to go about creating and filing away memories as well as cleaning up and flushing away toxins and other waste byproducts. Sleep also facilitates the brain’s formation of new neural connections and the elimination of old bad ones.
Experts agree that older adults need around the same amount of sleep as young adults, between 7 and 8 hours of continuous sleep per night. That means that naps during the day do not count towards your sleep goals and missing critical hours of sleep actually adds up into what is known as a “sleep debt”.
Tips for Older Adults Who Want to Get Better Sleep
Logging the recommended amount of hours when you already experience insomnia can seem like an impossible challenge. These steps can help:
- Limit caffeine consumption in the second half of the day
- Avoid taking naps that are more than 30-minutes long, especially in the second half of the day
- Get adequate natural light exposure during the day
- Foster a healthy sleep environment that is quiet, cool, and dark
- Limit blue light exposure from smart devices, i.e. smartphone, at night
- Exercise daily to help tire your body out
- Maintain a routine sleep schedule, even on the weekends
- Keep pets outside of the bedroom at night
- Don’t consume food or drinks in the few hours leading to bedtime to avoid mid-sleep bathroom breaks
For chronic sleep problems that are not resolved with lifestyle adjustments like those listed above, a clinical evaluation may be required to rule out underlying medical conditions. Know the warning signs and seek help – sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health and wellbeing.