When Older Folks Can't Sleep
Elderly ZZZZs Disease
Learned by Experience
Others have conditioned or learned insomnia, says Mayoral.
People who have had heart attacks or have suffered a loss, for instance, will
naturally have trouble sleeping. If they lie in bed and try to force themselves
to sleep, their bodies eventually learn not to sleep.
"If this goes on for five to seven nights, the original
cause -- which may be very legitimate -- has disappeared, but the learned
response persists," says Mayoral.
Mayoral puts such patients in a program to teach them how to
sleep again -- usually without sleeping pills, which are no cure either.
The FDA usually approves of the use of sleeping pills for up to
two weeks at a time. But some people use them for years, and for them, the
drugs may be more of a psychological boost than a real sleep aid, says Charles
M. Morin, MD, of the School of Psychology at the University Laval in Quebec. In
his research, Morin found that the sleep of people who use sleeping pills was
just as disrupted as those who don't take them.
Behavioral modification may be the way to go in the long run,
since researchers are learning that drug therapy is most effective for
short-term management of insomnia. For long-term improvements, researchers
often find that changing habits, sleep schedules, and beliefs make a difference
for many sleep patients -- many of whom think that they always need eight hours
of sleep every night.
Just how much sleep older people need is a matter of dispute.
Several researchers, including Morin, say they believe seniors' sleep needs are
no different than they were when they were younger. It's just that it's more
difficult for them to sleep well.
But Charles Pollack, MD, Director of the Division of Sleep
Medicine at Ohio State University, has found that older people simply don't
need as much sleep. "They're not only sleeping less, but they need
But while most seniors need less sleep, says Pollack, they
still plan for the same eight hours in bed. What's more, older people are often
unaware that it's normal for their sleep patterns to shift as they age. They
feel sleepy earlier in the evening than they're used to, and wake up earlier in
the morning. This causes many to think they aren't getting a full night's rest,
If you find it difficult to get the sleep you need, you might
want to refine your sleep habits. Here are some things to consider. (And if you
haven't done so, discuss the topic with your doctor, too.)
- Do you stay active? Many studies have shown exercise can be helpful for
people 50-78 to regulate their sleep. Even getting enough sunlight during late
afternoon can help, too.
- Do you have a few drinks before bed or drink a lot of coffee during the
day? That can really affect your sleep. Alcohol might make you feel sleepy at
first, but it actually makes it difficult for you to stay asleep and rest.
- Do you nap during the day? Doctors once frowned on the habit because it
seemed that it could disrupt your sleep through the night and even lead to
health problems. But research now hints that it could be helpful if you set
limits on how long the nap lasts. So far, it looks like limiting a nap to no
longer than 30 minutes works best.
- Again, talk with your doctor. If you have chronic conditions like
arthritis, your sleep could suffer. Also, the medications you take could affect
your sleep patterns. If you are having problems sleeping, bring all your
medications in to your doctor appointment. If some of them can disturb sleep,
you may be able to change the dosage or switch to others that may not be
troublesome for you. You and your doctor should talk about this together.
With reporting by Larry Schuster