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Sleep Problems and Aging: The Causes and Solutions
May 2nd, 2019

Kids seem to have the ability to sleep on command, whether they’re on the couch, in the car or even at the dinner table. But as we grow older, we lose some of that ability, resigning ourselves to lighter and more interrupted sleep. Unfortunately, a lack of sleep can lead to a battery of other health issues.

There is no single cause for lack of sleep, but research suggests that older adults do have a more difficult time getting the rest they need. Whether it’s stress-related, illness-related or otherwise, the negative effects are the same. In this post, we’re going to discuss aging and sleep – we’ll talk about what causes these sleep problems in older adults, what effects this lack of sleep may have on overall health, and how to get a better night’s rest.

We’ll also learn more about our home health care services and how they can aid you – or a sleep-deprived loved one.

What Causes Sleep Problems?

Before we get into specific causes of sleep problems for older adults, it’s worthwhile mentioning that Seniors, as a baseline effect, have a more difficult time getting a good rest. Take this study from Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, which notes a measurable, age-related decrease in the proportion of REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement sleep), the restorative “deep” sleep we need to feel properly rested.

But this baseline decrease in restorative sleep is exacerbated by certain other things. Those suffering from an illness, especially illnesses that cause discomfort or pain, will probably have a more difficult time getting to sleep, and staying asleep. That’s why, for sufferers of chronic pain, we often discuss the many benefits of massage therapy with Clients, as a way of alleviating pain and allowing the Client to get a better sleep.

But it may not be the illness that’s causing the insomnia – it may in fact be what the doctor has prescribed to treat the illness. Certain medications can cause a restless sleep, and if that’s the case, it is worthwhile discussing with your Doctor whether there are equivalent medications you can take that will allow you to sleep better. It might not be possible, but it’s worth discussing with your Doctor, as they are invested in your overall health, of which sleep is a big part.

Anxiety is another cause of sleep deprivation. Everyone, at one point or another in their life, has stayed up worrying about something. That feeling of not being able to shut off your thoughts is near universal. But anxiety goes beyond just a one-off restless night. Anxiety and depression can get in the way of a normal sleep pattern, which is particularly bad because, in turn, a lack of sleep can exacerbate anxiety and depression. It can be a vicious downward cycle.  

Nocturia is another reason many older adults suffer a poor night’s rest. Nocturia is a condition that causes one to wake up in the middle of the night with a need to urinate, often frequently. Frequently awaking in the middle of the night to head to the bathroom obviously disrupts the natural sleep rhythms, and can leave people with Nocturia feeling under-rested during the day.

Finally, there are substances that affect everyone’s sleep, regardless of age. Caffeine before bed, nicotine before bed, alcohol before bed, or even a sizeable meal – these can all affect the depth and quality of your sleep.

The Effects of a Bad Night’s Sleep

Not getting proper rest can have wide reaching implications in your life. For one, it can make you more irritable. Researchers have noted a correlation between sleep deprivation and greater emotional reactivity meaning that your temper is shorter and your mood is somewhat sour.

You might also find that you are more forgetful after a lousy night’s sleep. You get that “foggy” feeling of not being able to call to mind certain details, plans or even what you were just doing.

The forgetfulness is often accompanied by, and directly related to, a sense of fatigue. Rather than go outside and get some fresh air, or join your friend for a coffee date, you would rather just hunker down inside, too tired to make the effort. In this way, fatigue can interfere with you leading a healthy, happy life. Once you find yourself cancelling plans or neglecting even light exercise out of fatigue, you need to take action against your sleep deprivation.

Finally, with this fatigue comes a greater fall risk. Avoiding falls requires a level of balance and focus that a lack of sleep can disrupt. Falls are a very serious concern for many Seniors, and one key way to prevent falls is to ensure that you are rested, alert and confident on your feet.

How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep

We’ve discussed the causes and uncovered the effects, but there are certain meaningful steps you can take to ensure you get a better night’s sleep. The effect of age on your REM sleep can’t be reversed, but with the following tips you can maximize your sleep.

  • Develop a Pattern: Sleep experts love to expound the value of a sleep pattern – that is, going to bed and waking up at a consistent times. It allows your body to get into a rhythm, giving you a better chance at a full night’s rest.
  • Moderate Exercise: You don’t need to run a marathon, but studies have correlated a moderate amount of exercise with improvements in the amount and quality of sleep. Even just a walk with friends may be enough for you to notice a difference.
  • Stress Relief:Stress can wreak all sorts of havoc on the body, and it can certainly affect your sleep schedule. Light a candle, have a bath, read a book, or – with the help of one of our amazing RMTs – relieve stress with massage therapy in your own home.
  • Avoid Certain Substances and Big Meals Before Bed: That cup of coffee or glass of wine isn’t doing your sleep quality any favours. A late night meal should also be avoided. Your body needs time and energy to process big meals, especially acidic, greasy or spicy meals, which can cause dyspepsia, heartburn or acid reflux. These things are bad enough during waking hours, but at night they can wake you up, and make it tough to get back to sleep.
  • Avoid Blue Light Before Bed: So called “Blue Light”, or the light you find emitting from computer screens and phones, can throw off your biological clock by inhibiting your brain from secreting melatonin, that wonderful hormone in charge of putting you to sleep. Rather than browse your computer, tablet or phone, pick up a book instead.

Sleep problems are as common as they are disruptive. But with the right intervention, a consistent schedule and some quality at-home health care, you can eliminate the midday fatigue and grumpiness, and welcome better health and happiness. If you want to learn more about how our health care services can help you rest easier, contact us anytime.


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