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10 Tips for Dealing with Age-related Sleep Problems

Be mindful of these do’s and don’ts and enjoy more restful slumber.

In today’s 24/7-world, sleep is a hot commodity—no matter what your age. Older adults are especially vulnerable to a sleep deficit as medications, sleep patterns and physical and emotional ailments converge to make restful slumber more difficult to achieve. Yet, according to the National Institute on Aging, seniors need the same amount of sleep as all adults—about 7-9 hours each night.

“There’s a general notion that seniors need less sleep,” says Richard Shane, Ph.D., behavioral sleep specialist in Boulder, Colorado, and founder of Sleep Easily. “That’s not true. While research shows seniors do get less sleep, it’s not because they need less.”

Instead, studies on the sleep habits of older Americans show seniors take longer to fall asleep, spend fewer hours in deep, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and wake more frequently during the night. What’s worse, when seniors wake in the middle of the night, they often have trouble falling back to sleep, so they end up sleep-deprived.

While that may not be a problem when you’re teaching in your 20s, lack of sleep during your golden years not only makes you grumpy and irritable, it can also lead to falls, reduced immunity and increased risk of chronic disease. The good news: Cycling into sound sleeping patterns doesn’t have to be difficult. The following tips can help you achieve more restorative slumber, particularly as you approach retirement age.

DO...

  • Stick to a schedule. Your body functions best when you maintain the same sleep and wake times—even on weekends. So, if you typically wake up at 7 a.m., keep the same schedule 7 days a week. Try to maintain your usual meal times, too, so your body falls into a predictable pattern.
  • Establish a bedtime routine. Instead of engaging in difficult conversations or solving academic riddles before bed, turn to soothing activities like taking a warm bath, meditating or reading.
  • Get moving. People who are more physically active sleep more soundly. Just don’t work out close to bedtime. Exercise spikes your body temperature and it takes about 6 hours for it to drop again. And since a cooler body temperature is associated with sleep onset, it’s best to exercise before 3 p.m.
  • Let in the light. Stepping into the sunlight first thing in the morning (or natural light if it’s cloudy) signals your body’s natural clock that it’s time to wake up. Shane suggests getting out into the sunlight for at least 15 minutes each day, even if it’s not early in the morning!
  • De-stress. You don’t have to count sheep to fall asleep. Stress reduction techniques, such as mindful meditation and deep breathing, can also help your body and mind wind down.

DON’T...

  • Turn on your devices. Computers, tablets and other electronics (yes, even e-readers!) emit blue light that interferes with your body’s natural sleep cycle, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Your best bet: Ditch electronics 1-2 hours before your usual bedtime.
  • Use caffeine as a crutch. While there’s nothing wrong with sipping a latte to get moving in the morning, you might want to steer clear of caffeine (even in the form of pop or chocolate) after 2 p.m. Tea, soda and chocolate all contain caffeine, which stays in your system for 4-6 hours.
  • Eat or drink before bed. Indulging in a heavy meal too close to bedtime can lead to heartburn and interfere with sleep. The same rule applies to liquids, especially alcohol. “When you drink alcohol right before bed, the alcohol wears off in the middle of the night causing early awakenings,” explains Shane. Even water can be problematic. Do you really want to wake up for a bathroom trip?
  • Take a power nap. If you’re dragging during the day, taking a mid-day snooze may seem like a simple fix. According to Shane, your best bet is to avoid napping. That way, you’re likely to fall asleep at bedtime and sleep through the night. Can’t keep your eyes open? Limit yourself to a 30-minute snooze before 2 p.m.
  • Use your bedroom for anything other than sleep and sex. Keep work, computers, television and other distractions out of the bedroom, suggests Shane. Such activities signal the brain that it’s time to wake up, not sleep.

If you’re chronically sleepy, or find it difficult to sleep at night, consider it a flashing red light to see a doctor. Waking up feeling tired is a sure sign you’re not getting the rest you need—and more often than not the solution goes beyond counting sheep. In fact, watching the clock, counting how many hours you slept or how many more you need to get before your alarm begins blaring will only add to your stress. The more worked up you get, the more difficult it will be to fall back to sleep.

Not sure whether you need to see a doctor? Ask yourself these 3 questions:

  • Are you waking up 3 nights (or more) each week?
  • Does it take longer than 30 minutes for you to fall back to sleep?
  • Have you been waking in the middle of the night for 30 days?

Answer yes to these questions and it may be time to see a sleep specialist. Together you can devise a plan to ensure you get the sleep you need.

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