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Sleep Problems and Old Age: What You Need to Know

01 Jan 1970 • Views

You may think restless nights are just a part of growing older, but the truth is, sleep problems aren't a normal part of aging. According to Sleep.org, an 80-year-old needs just as much sleep as an 18-year-old.

While sleep patterns may shift to an earlier sleep-wake cycle, older adults still need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately, many older adults struggle to achieve quality sleep.

Poor sleep affects more than your energy levels throughout the day. Older adults who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to experience depression and attention and memory problems. Insufficient sleep can exacerbate chronic health conditions and it increases the risk of falling at home.

Sleep problems come in a variety of forms. You may have trouble falling and staying asleep or wake up early and be unable to fall back asleep. You may feel you’re getting enough rest each night but feel drowsy and tired throughout the day. If you’re facing these problems, you’re not alone — approximately 44 percent of elderly people experience some form of insomnia. But there is something you can do about it.

Causes of Sleep Problems in the Elderly

Treating sleep problems starts with identifying the underlying cause. These are some common causes of sleep problems in older adults:

Lifestyle: Not getting enough exercise limited daylight exposure and daytime napping make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. Consumption of alcohol, caffeine and nicotine also affect sleep.

Continence problems: Waking up at night to go the bathroom not only disrupts sleep, it also increases the risk of nighttime falling. In most cases, urinary incontinence is treatable .

Illness: Chronic health conditions such as arthritis, congestive heart failure, dementia, and depression cause discomfort that makes falling and staying asleep difficult. Medications taken to treat health problems may also impact sleep quality.

Movement disorders: Nighttime movement disorders include Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD). While both involve leg movement that disturbs sleep, the two conditions differ. With RLS, movements occur while a person is awake, preventing them from falling asleep. With PLMD, movements occur during the first stage of sleep and affect the restfulness of sleep. Seniors may be unaware they have PLMD.

Sleep-disordered breathing: Conditions including snoring and sleep apnea make it difficult to breathe during sleep, leading to frequent waking throughout the night. Sleep apnea is particularly dangerous to older adults. Sleep apnea causes breathing to stop during sleep, which disrupts oxygen flow to the brain and increases the risk of health conditions including stroke, heart disease, diabetes and dementia.

Help for Sleep Problems in the Elderly

You don’t have to accept sleep problems as a fact of life. Many sleep problems can be prevented or mitigated through health and lifestyle changes. Practicing good sleep hygiene , investing in a better mattress and pillow, getting a small air purifier to help cleanse the air and help with any breathing issues, and avoiding alcohol, caffeine and nicotine can improve the quality of your sleep. If you spend most of your time inactive and indoors, increasing your physical activity and getting outside during the day can help you feel tired at night.

If a health condition or prescription medications are affecting your sleep, talk to your doctor about treatment options that preserve your sleep quality.

If you’ve taken these steps and your sleep problems persist, consider a sleep study . A sleep study identifies sleep problems you may be unaware of, such as sleep apnea and PLMD. Medicare may cover certain tests performed in a sleep study when deemed medically necessary. The tests diagnose obstructive sleep apnea at home or in a sleep lab facility. For seniors diagnosed with sleep apnea, Medicare may cover a three-month trial for continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, including CPAP equipment. If your doctor notes you’re responding to the treatment, you may be eligible to have coverage extended.

Sleep problems are more than an inconvenience. Without good sleep, your entire quality of life suffers. If you know or suspect that you’re getting insufficient or poor-quality sleep, it’s time to talk to your doctor about how you can rest easy at night.

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