The Almost Definitive Guide to Insomnia in Older Adults

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Why Insomnia Happens

Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, a fact that does not change as they grow older. But from age 65 on, attaining that sleep can become very difficult. A 2005 study by the National Sleep Foundation found 39% of older people were more likely to wake up often during the night. Part of the biological changes that occur when we age effect our sleep, like our circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is like an internal clock, and when we get older our rhythm shifts and causes sleepiness in the early evening and wakefulness in the early morning, so a number of older people grew to consider themselves a “morning person.”

Insomnia is a condition where your body has trouble falling and/or staying asleep, even when you are feeling sleep-deprived. Insomnia can be caused by a number of factors, most commonly health problems but also inconsistent nighttime habits. And as our bodies age they produce less growth hormones and melatonin, which means that even when we do get sleep it’s fragmented, not the deep sleep that makes you feel truly rested. The good news is, insomnia can be treated.

Impact of Insomnia In Older Adults

Sleep is incredibly important, and not just because it is a chance for our bodies to rest. When we sleep, our brain uses that time to form memories, refresh the immune system, and repair the day’s cell damage. Sleep is what allows us to fight off memory problems and mental health issues like depression. When the body is fighting fatigue it is more vulnerable to weight problems, pain sensitivity, and nighttime falls.

What starts out as an inconvenience can quickly spiral into a serious problem. If you think you may be experiencing insomnia, the best course is to talk to your doctor as quickly as possible. If you are continuously getting insufficient sleep, you’ll not only be an emotional wreck but you’ll be putting yourself in danger. The brain is not built for sleep deprivation, so your body may fall asleep while driving, or you’ll come to rely on sleeping pills or alcohol to fall asleep. Without sleep you’re simply not yourself. Insomnia can be episodic and last for weeks, or chronic and last for months. Once you see your doctor and identify the cause of your insomnia, you can get to work treating it.

What To Do

Depending on what is causing your insomnia, there are different ways to treat it. When you see your doctor, they may suggest sleeping pills or sleep therapy, but sometimes the solution is as easy as changing your sleeping habits. When you change your approach to sleep, you are coaching your body to get into a routine and catering to the biology of sleep. Routine helps, so make sure you are going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. When you go to sleep, make sure you are surrounded by dark and quiet, with no distractions.

It also helps if your body associates your bed with sleep, so avoid eating or reading in bed and don’t lay in bed if you are feeling awake. Stress can keep your mind racing late into the night, so try to stick to relaxing activities before bed, like reading or a hot bath. Insomnia can be scary because your body is out of its natural rhythm, but it is possible to get it back under control. Even the smallest measures, like exercising in the afternoon instead of at night and avoiding daytime naps will help your body get back on track.