With age comes many challenges—including trouble sleeping. And that trouble is nothing to ignore.
“Sleep does affect everybody, but your brain needs sleep. Even more than your body, your brain needs time to recuperate,” says Rahul Sharma, M.D., a physiatrist at Weiss.
Yet as we age, our bodies become more sensitive to stimulants within and around us, such as hormones, physiological factors, light, noise and temperature. A host of diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes also takes a toll, along with mental disorders including Alzheimer’s and depression.
Those elements combined often interfere with our sleep schedules, either resulting in an inability to fall asleep or an inability to stay asleep, also known as insomnia. The disorder affects 48 percent of people over age 65—whose numbers, incidentally, are on the rise. In 1990, seniors made up 4 percent of the population; by 2000, 20 percent.
Sleep apnea—abnormal pauses in breathing during sleep—also prohibits people from getting a full rest. It often goes undiagnosed, but those dangerous pauses in breathing cause the body to go into panic mode and release stress hormones. “You may be waking up hundreds of times during the night without realizing it,” says Dr. Sharma.
He calls information key. “You want to understand as much as possible and communicate with your doctor.”
To make it easier to fall asleep or to enhance sleep, Dr. Sharma recommends a regular schedule with a relaxing bedtime routine. “You don’t want to be fired up before sleep, and there should be no TV in the bedroom,” he says. “Use the bed only for sleep and satisfying sex.”
Create a sleep-promoting environment that is dark, cool and calm. For some, that may mean covering their clock to avoid clock-watching.
Dr. Sharma also says to avoid caffeine after noon and cigarettes altogether. Alcohol should be consumed in moderation, if at all. “Alcohol makes you fall asleep, but you can’t maintain that sleep.”
A sleep diary may help with identifying habits and patterns, important data to share with a sleep specialist or bring to a sleep study.
“Things change as you get older, but if they are things we can modify—like medications or habits—we can improve your quality of life.”