It is a common misconception that the older we get, the less sleep we need. This is untrue; in fact, our sleep needs to remain the same throughout our adult life. As we get older, our sleeping patterns change, the elderly tend to have more sleep problems and a broken sleep, resulting in less time spent in a deep rest, often leading to them feeling tired during the day. Regardless of your age, a good night’s sleep is essential for general health and well being.
What are the main causes of sleep problems?
1. Illness and Medications:
Research shows that many sleep disturbances are caused by illness and the medications used to treat them. Physical and psychiatric illnesses can cause fragmented sleep.
Chronic medical conditions are more common in the elderly such as Alzheimer’s, heart failures, restless leg syndrome etc. These illnesses often affect a person’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep (Read more here).
Life changing events can cause severe psychological distress on the elderly, the death of a loved one or close friend, reduced mobility or limitations due to illness can have an effect on the quality of sleep.
Medications that are used to treat these illnesses often have side effects, which in turn, affect a person’s ability to sleep soundly. Some of these medications impair the ability to sleep and often stimulate wakefulness.
2. Changing Sleeping pattern:
As we age, our circadian rhythms changes. Circadian rhythms are the physical, mental and behavioural changes that occur in a 24 hour period. These changes respond to the changes in light and dark. This rhythm coordinates the timing of our sleeping pattern. As we get older, our sleeping pattern changes, older people become tired earlier and tend to wake up earlier in the mornings compared to younger adults.
This is called advanced sleep phase syndrome, where the sleep rhythm changes, but 7-8 hours sleep are still obtained just at a different stage because the person goes to sleep earlier and wakes earlier.
3. Sleep disorders:
Certain sleep disorders are more prevalent in the elderly such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome. Insomnia is a person’s inability to fall asleep and stay asleep. This can often affect a person’s daily routine, making it harder to function and complete daily tasks.
Sleep apnea occurs when a person’s breathing stops temporarily during the night, often causing that person to suddenly waken. Restless legs syndrome is a condition that causes the sudden urge to move the legs or arms during periods of rest, inhibiting a person’s ability to fall asleep. If these conditions have a major effect on normal daily functions, then it is important to seek advice from a doctor. For more information on these conditions click here.
Snoring is a common condition that can affect anyone, even women, although it is more likely to occur in men and people who are overweight. Snoring is a condition that tends to get worse with age. Loud snoring often causes a disturbed sleep for the snorer, and also the snorer’s partner. Loud snoring is more serious and can often be associated with high blood pressure and Sleep Apnea, therefore a visit to the doctor might be needed.
5. Too much sleep during the day:
Sleeping during the day is another cause of night time wakefulness. As older people tire more easily, they are more likely to sleep during the day than younger adults. Being overly tired during the day is not a part of normal ageing. If there is a constant need to sleep throughout the day, then there is more likely an underlying cause. The less sleep gotten during the day, the more likely you are to have a good uninterrupted night’s sleep. Try to minimise daytime napping. If a nap is needed, nap earlier in the day to avoid wakefulness at night time.
In all, sleep problems can affect anyone, and tend to increase as we get older. By identifying the cause of the problem, steps can be taken to reduce the problem. In the case of medication causing sleeplessness, consult a doctor about changing the medication etc. Try to maintain a sleep diary, this may help to figure out what is causing disrupted sleep. If symptoms persist, consult your doctor as there is a real danger to health and well-being when the needed amount of sleep is not being attained.