Sleep and aging: Sleep tips for older adults

By Dr. David Lewis
MD Pulmonary Specialist – Kaiser Permanente Washington

A poll of older adults by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) found that the healthier you are, the better you’ll sleep. Conversely, the more medical conditions you have, the less likely you are to sleep well. New findings from the CDC’s 2014 study on healthy sleep showed that sleeping less than seven hours per night is associated with greater likelihoods of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, mental distress, and death.

How many hours of sleep do seniors need?

Changes affecting sleep do occur naturally after age 60. Shifts in hormone and melatonin levels may cause us to take longer to fall asleep, sleep more lightly, and wake more often during the night. We may find ourselves going to bed earlier and rising with the birds. And yet studies show that seniors still need seven to eight hours of sleep each night—not much less than we needed in our 20s.

Lack of sleep is not to be taken lightly. It depresses our immune systems, affects our daily activities, increases confusion, affects our mood and concentration, and may lead to falls. It’s really as vital to good health as good nutrition, regular exercise, and a positive attitude. So if you’re not sleeping soundly, see your doctor.

7 sleep tips for older adults

1. Develop a more consistent sleep routine

Going to bed at the same time every night. Falling asleep in the same position. Having a cup of warm milk or herbal tea. A warm soak in the tub. What’s important is to find a routine that works for you and trains your mind and body that it’s time for sleep.

2. Address snoring issues

If snoring is serious enough that breathing is interrupted, consider whether sleep apnea might be the cause of your sleep problems and talk with a doctor. A C-Pap machine may change your life for the better.

3. Let your mind and body slow down close to bedtime

Try to avoid late night stimulating activities such as eating (especially spicy foods), watching TV, or lively debates with family or friends. Some quiet music or a little reading are better bedtime choices. Or try progressive muscle relaxation—systematically tensing and then relaxing all the muscle groups of your body. It’s been known to help with insomnia.

4. Try using more pillows if you have body aches

Some side sleepers, for example, will use a pillow between their knees. If you sleep on your back, a small pillow under the back of your knees will reduce stress on your spine. Equally important—consider the age of your mattress. You may be long overdue for a replacement that would provide more support.

5. Skip your afternoon naps

Naps are fine as long as you’re sleeping well at night, but are bad habits for those suffering from insomnia.

6. Change your sleeping environment

Temperature changes, light and noise levels can interrupt your sleep. Consider using layered covers of varying weight so you can pull more on or throw some off as needed during the night. Noisy parties next door? It might be worthwhile to invest in something that creates white noise, whether it’s a fan or special white noise machine.

7. Address your stress levels

Worries are another culprit of sleepless nights. One patient I know writes her worries in a journal as a way to let them go. Your strategy might be to watch funny videos or read a suspenseful novel. Worry is the result of an overactive mind, so relax by focusing on something else—such as your favorite memories of family and friends. That should inspire more pleasant dreams.

Because insomnia is the most common sleep complaint among Americans, many turn to over-the-counter sleep aids such as antihistamines and melatonin. These can help in the short term, but are usually not recommended for long-term therapy. Drugs can actually decrease the quality of your sleep after prolonged, regular use. So focus instead on the specific causes behind your sleep difficulties and talk to your doctor if things don’t improve.