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Don’t Sleep on Changes in Seniors’ Sleep Patterns

January 25, 2020

One of the many interesting things about sleep is that researchers don’t know exactly why we need it. There is a theory that it has an evolutionary component, dating back to a time when animals laid low at night. Other theories center on energy conservation, the repair and rejuvenation of muscles and tissue and renewal of brain function.

But the experts just don’t know for sure, despite extensive study. All they know is that we need it, crave it, suffer when we don’t have it. And that doesn’t change later in life; seniors need between 7.5 and nine hours of it. Unfortunately it is often difficult to reach that goal, as neuroscientist Matthew Walker, author of the 2017 book Why We Sleep and founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at University of California, Berkley, said in a Talks at Google session earlier this year:

“We know a psychological signature of aging is that our memory gets worse, but a physiological signature of aging is that our sleep gets worse.”

He went on to say that the two are interrelated, as changes in a senior’s brain leave that organ unable to generate the sleep it requires. A 2018 study concluded, in fact, that as many as half of older adults — i.e., those over the age of 60 — suffer from insomnia symptoms like difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep, while between 12 and 20 percent of those over 65 suffer from full-blown insomnia. That makes it one of the most common sleep disturbances among people over 60.

Other disorders include sleep apnea (frequently interrupted nighttime breathing), restless leg syndrome (leg discomfort leading to an unquenchable urge to move one’s legs) and circadian rhythm sleep disorders (where the body’s natural rhythms fall out of sync with the cycle of light and darkness).

Such maladies can be the result not only of decreasing brain function but also various mental and physical issues, ranging from dementia, depression and anxiety to gastrointestinal, respiratory and urological disorders. Other potential factors are a lack of exercise, the use of alcohol and certain medications, excess stress and a dearth of social connections.

The consequences can be dire. Those who don’t sleep enough are more prone to falls and more apt to develop cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other issues. As a result, it is important to take steps to alleviate the problem. One would be to change your habits — i.e., go to bed and arise at the same time every day, use your bed for sleep and sex only or limit your liquid intake before bed (and avoid alcohol altogether). Another would be to improve your environment — i.e., making sure that your bedroom is dark and quiet. (The latter is of particular importance, as we become more sensitive to noise as we age.)

The Allure Group endeavors to improve the sleep environment of its residents by providing a Pad in Motion tablet at each of the 1,400 bedsides in its six skilled nursing facilities. These tablets are equipped with soothing apps and sounds that aid in residents’ relaxation.

In the U.S. population as a whole, it is not uncommon for those with sleeping disorders to turn to melatonin and other medications. While they are a suitable short-term solution, as when traveling across time zones, they come with a caveat, as they can be habit-forming and increase the risk of falls.

A far more highly recommended solution is cognitive behavioral therapy, which allows one to explore the negative thoughts that might lead to sleep issues. Other stress-reduction techniques, like journaling, have been known to help. 

The bottom line is, a great many things are factors in determining how to get a good night’s sleep — that while we might not know the true nature of sleep itself, we do know the means by which we might attain it.

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