Humans devote about one-third of their lives to one activity but think little about it - until they cannot do it. This activity has a calming effect, often leaves one feeling refreshed and promotes overall wellness. What is this activity? Sleep.
Along with the physical changes that occur as we get older, changes to our sleep patterns may also occur. As people age they tend to have a harder time falling asleep and more trouble staying asleep. It is a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age, but our sleep needs remain constant throughout life. Sleep occurs in multiple stages, including dreamless periods of light and deep sleep, and occasional periods of active dreaming. The sleep cycle is repeated several times during the night. Older people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep.
Insomnia is the inability to sleep and occurs more frequently among older adults. Insomnia may create serious effects, complicating other conditions or making a person too tired to function normally during his waking hours. People with insomnia can experience excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating and increased risk for accidents and illness. If you experience insomnia at least a few nights per week, it is worthwhile to speak to your health provider about your trouble sleeping and any effects your insomnia may have on your body.
Snoring, a condition that gets worse with age, is the primary cause of sleep disruption for many adults. Snoring is most commonly associated with persons who are overweight. Loud snoring is particularly serious as it can be a symptom of sleep apnea. In sleep apnea, breathing stops and the amount of oxygen in the blood drops. This alerts the brain, causing you to wake-up and resume breathing. These stoppages of breathing can occur repeatedly, causing multiple sleep disruptions throughout the night and result in excessive daytime sleepiness and impaired daytime function. Untreated, sleep apnea puts a person at risk for cardiovascular disease, headaches, memory loss and depression. If you experience snoring on a regular basis and it can be heard from another room or you have been told you stop breathing during your sleep, these are signs that you might have sleep apnea and it should be discussed with your health provider.
Certain conditions are related to increased sleep problems:
- Hypertension is associated with both snoring and sleep apnea.
- The hot flashes, changes in breathing and decreasing hormonal levels associated with menopause may lead to trouble sleeping.
- Many cancer patients experience sleep problems.
- Acid reflux may cause difficulty falling and staying asleep. Heartburn sufferers experience nighttime burn, causing discomfort and awakenings. This is more likely to occur while resting your back.
- Depression is most closely associated with insomnia, and is a risk factor for having difficulty sleeping. This is especially true for those who have chronic insomnia.
- The pain and discomfort of arthritis may make it difficult to sleep through the night.
- In addition, the medications used to treat these conditions and other medical conditions may adversely affect your ability to sleep.
If you experience sleep problems, think about whether your difficulty sleeping may be caused by an event or particular stress. If so, the problem may resolve in time and you need not seek treatment. Also, you may try other things to improve your sleep:
- Use your bed and bedroom for sleep only. It is best to take work materials, computers and televisions out of the sleeping environment.
- Maintain a regular bed and wake time schedule, including weekends.
- Create a good sleep environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.
- Finish eating at least two to three hours before your regular bedtime.
- Exercise regularly, completing your workout at least two hours before bedtime.
- Avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. Used close to bedtime, they can lead to poor sleep.
If sleep problems persist, they may be a sign of a larger issue that could adversely affect your health. See your health provider and discuss your sleep problems with him or her to try to determine the cause of your sleep issues. Your body and mind work very hard for you, and you owe both the seven to eight hours of sleep per night that they deserve.
For more information, contact Patrice Dunagin, Smith County FCS agent for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, at 903-590-2980.