Q. I am a senior citizen having trouble sleeping, which is new for me. My older friends are complaining of the same thing. Why is this happening and what do you recommend? B.E.
Clearly, you are not alone. We are facing a national sleep crisis, according to Arianna Huffington, author of “The Sleep Revolution” (Harmony, 2017), and it is creating a serious problem for our health, productivity and safety.
Yet sleep is not a luxury; it is considered necessary to function at our best. It helps to improve concentration and memory formation, allows our body to repair cell damage and refreshes our immune system, which helps prevent disease.
Here are several age-related changes that may partially answer your question of “why?”
Sleep fragmentation: This means we are not sleeping through the night and are likely are getting up to go to the bathroom or because we are worried about something. We also may stay awake because we are excited, looking forward to a trip or a visit from grandchildren. As a result, we suffer from what is called a reduction in sleep efficiency, the amount of time we are sleeping in our beds.
REM sleep: With age, we often do not get sufficient REM sleep. Of the five phases of sleep, phases four and five are considered most important since they are the restorative part of the sleep cycle. Phase five, or REM sleep, benefits learning, memory and mood. It also has been described as clearing out the brain’s “junk mail.” Matthew Solan, the executive editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, writes, “deep sleep sweeps out excess amyloid proteins considered a waste product from the energy used when brain cells communicate.” Amyloid proteins often are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Circadian rhythms: With age, we experience changes with our bodies’ internal time clock. Circadian rhythms influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, eating habits and digestion, body temperature and other bodily functions. The changes are caused by the early release and peak of the hormone melatonin. Despite wanting to stay awake in the early evening, we may fall asleep. The changing rhythms may make it difficult to fall asleep at night and cause us to wake up too early in the morning.
Finally, we cannot overlook a sleep partner’s snoring.
Here are some sleep tips, as suggested in part by HelpGuide.org.
Go to sleep and get up the same time every day: This routine helps regulate your body’s internal clock. Go to bed when you are feeling tired. With enough sleep, you shouldn’t need an alarm clock.
Avoid sleeping in—even on weekends: Try to keep the same sleep pattern daily. Make up for missing sleep with a daytime nap; limit naps to 15 to 20 minutes in the early afternoon.
Don’t surrender to early evening drowsiness: If you are tired before bedtime, do something mildly stimulating: call a friend, wash the dishes or plan your next day.
Expose yourself to bright sunlight in the morning: The light on your face will help you wake up and decrease the production of melatonin. Eat breakfast by a sunny window, take a lovely morning walk or work in the garden.
Avoid bright screens within 1-2 hours of your bedtime: Blue light from a cell phone, tablet, TV or computer is disruptive. If you must use your device, turn down the brightness or use light altering software such as f.lux.
Engage in regular exercise: Regular exercise increases the amount of time spent in deep sleep which is restorative sleep. It may take several months to feel the effect. Finish at least three hours before bedtime.
Eat and drink sensibly: Avoid stimulants such as coffee, tea and regular Coke. Avoid big meals at night, alcohol before bed and drinking too many liquids in the evening.
Use an app for white noise: There are apps on iTunes that can lull you to sleep with sounds of waves, rain or chirping birds. Listening to Chopin also works.
Use a supplement: Some physicians recommend taking melatonin to regulate sleep rhythms.
And here’s a bit of trivia: Einstein reportedly slept 10 hours a day; tennis star Roger Federer says he requires 11 to 12 hours.
Not sleeping well or insomnia can be caused by a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. For a major sleep problem, contact a board-certified physician in sleep medicine.
B.E., Hope this is helpful and sweet dreams.