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Sleep Challenges for Older Adults

Seniors have certain sleep changes due to aging, but sleep problems aren’t part of getting older. Vitiello says the key for better sleep when you’re older is staying healthy. Most seniors’ sleep problems are because of an illness or a medication. Seniors have poor sleep due to: 

  • Illness, such as arthritis or another condition that causes pain, heart or lung disease, enlarged prostate, acid reflux, or depression. In people aged 65 to 84, 20% have four or more medical conditions. Eighty percent of them say they have problems sleeping.
  • Medications, especially those for high blood pressure and asthma.
  • Sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless legs syndrome.
  • Behavioral or social changes: retirement, lifestyle change, death of a loved one, napping, using social drugs.
  • Sleep environment: Noise, heat, bright lighting, or bothersome bedding in the bedroom; moving to a new home or a nursing home. 

An older person in excellent health will still probably have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep than when they were younger. Otherwise, they can expect to sleep fairly well. Vitiello studies older adults in good physical and mental health. “None of them sleep the same as they did when they were 18. I know that their sleep is radically different than younger people’s,” he says. Yet most of the healthy aging group has no sleep complaints.

Meeting Your Sleep Need

For older people with health problems, napping during the day may be the only way to get enough sleep because their sleep at night may be disrupted. For healthy older adults, napping isn’t a great idea. It might make falling asleep or staying asleep at night more difficult. 

Vitiello says people assume all older people nap because of their age. “While napping does increase with age, it never penetrates more than one third of the population – even out into the 80s,” he says. 

If you have a medical condition and have trouble sleeping, tell your doctor. Your doctor can determine whether you have a sleep disorder, such as insomnia, or if your health condition or other medical treatment is affecting your sleep. For example, if one of your medications makes you sleepy during the day, talk to your doctor about changing the time you take it. Or ask if there’s a different medication that would work. (Never change your medication without talking to your doctor.)

Know the Basics

At any age, good sleep habits are important for quality sleep. These include sticking to a regular bedtime, having little or no caffeine, and sleeping in a cool, dark, comfortable room. 

“Probably around age 60 or so, adults really need to be careful about having good sleep hygiene and watching side effects of medication, what they’re eating and drinking in terms of stimulating beverages or foods,” Arand says. 

Arand and Vitiello agree that staying physically and mentally active is vital for a good night’s sleep. “After the age of 40, or especially after the age of 60, individuals who are very physically active can tend to sleep deeper and have better quality sleep at night than individuals who may not be very active,” Arand says.

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