Wellness Tips

The Connection Between Aging and Sleep Disorders: Health Tips for Seniors

Let’s understand the causes of sleep issues among seniors and how to address them.

Many seniors grapple with sleep problems intertwined with their overall health.

Our sleep patterns undergo changes as we grow older. You might find yourself getting drowsy earlier and experiencing less profound sleep compared to your younger years. Picture the challenge of trying to fall asleep, only to find it taking longer than usual or waking up multiple times during the night, perhaps even rising too early and feeling fatigued. Many seniors encounter these sleep hurdles.

The significance of deep sleep cannot be understated. It aids in the repair of muscles and bones, fortifies the immune system, and assists in memory organisation, all of which contribute to feeling refreshed upon waking. However, certain habits can sabotage sound sleep. Excessive daytime naps, insufficient physical activity, and limited exposure to natural light can all disrupt our sleep. Beverages like coffee or alcohol can also hinder both falling asleep and maintaining sleep. Let’s delve into the factors responsible for insufficient sleep among older adults.

Common Causes of Sleep Issues in the Elderly

1. Sleep problems linked to health conditions

Many seniors grapple with sleep problems intertwined with their overall health. These are known as “secondary” sleep issues, originating from medical conditions that primarily manifest in ways other than sleep disturbances. Ailments such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can impact breathing. Conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) cause heartburn; an enlarged prostate leads to nighttime urination; and an overactive bladder contributes to urinary incontinence. Neurological issues like Parkinson’s disease and dementia, along with mental health disorders like depression, often play a role in sleep disruptions.

2. Snoring, sleep apnea, and breathing disorders

As we age, the likelihood of experiencing problems breathing while sleeping increases. This is especially noticeable in men and individuals who are carrying excess weight. Sleep apnea is one such issue. It means that during sleep, your breathing stops and starts repeatedly. The most common type is called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), where your airway gets blocked, causing these interruptions in breathing. Another variant, central sleep apnea, is less common and stems from brain-related breathing alterations, leading to daytime drowsiness.

3. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a condition where individuals sense itching, crawling sensations, or restlessness as they attempt to drift off to sleep. While these sensations are usually not painful, they prompt movement to alleviate discomfort. Although the exact origins of RLS remain partly elusive, there seems to be a connection between dopamine and iron levels in the brain. It’s pertinent to note that most instances are not associated with neurodegenerative processes.

Suggestions For Improving Sleep Among Seniors

  • Addressing the root causes of insomnia

If you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s a good idea to check if any existing health issues might be causing it. Fixing a core problem, like dealing with diabetic neuropathy that makes you uncomfortable at night, can really make your sleep much better. Just like how managing diabetes can help you sleep well, solving the main reasons for sleep issues can lead to better sleep overall.

  • Cultivating natural melatonin levels

The glow of artificial lights at night can diminish melatonin production, the hormone that regulates sleepiness. To counteract this, consider using gentle, low-wattage bulbs and powering down electronic devices like TVs and computers at least an hour before retiring. As age progresses, growth hormone production diminishes, resulting in less deep, restorative sleep, a crucial phase of the sleep cycle. Consequently, melatonin production drops, leading to more fragmented sleep and increased nocturnal awakenings. A helpful tip: limit screen exposure (like mobile phones and iPads) extensively before bedtime.

  • Establishing a calming bedtime routine

Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and retiring and rising at fixed times can yield significant benefits. Reducing daytime naps can enhance the urge for nighttime sleep. Engaging in activities that ease the transition to sleep, such as taking a warm bath, relishing calming music, or practising relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, or deep breathing, can prove beneficial.

Consider designating your bedroom primarily for sleep. Over time, this space will naturally become associated with restfulness.

  • Easing stress and embracing relaxation

Creating a serene bedtime ritual can be an effective strategy. A warm bath, soothing music, or engagement in relaxation methods like progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, or deep breathing can facilitate a smoother transition into slumber. In moments of stress, attempt relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation without leaving your bed. Although not a replacement for sleep, these techniques possess the ability to revitalise both body and mind.

In essence, recognising and addressing the underlying causes of sleep disturbances among seniors is of paramount importance. A comprehensive understanding of the factors contributing to sleep issues empowers us to make meaningful changes, ensuring that the golden years are accompanied by nights of peaceful, revitalizing sleep.

The article is contributed by Dr. Anand Kumar, Professor & Head, Dept. of Neurology, Amrita hospital, Kochi.

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