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Older, wiser, sleepier?

It's normal for sleep behavior to change as we get older. However, some changes could signal a sleep disorder.

Some changes in sleep cycles come naturally with age. But if you're having regular trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or if you feel drowsy all day, the cause probably goes beyond getting older.

These types of sleep disturbances are not normal or inevitable with age, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). There's almost always an underlying cause and a treatment or lifestyle change that can help.

Common causes

According to the NSF, common causes of sleep problems in older adults include:

  • Medical problems such as arthritis, depression, heartburn, dementia, lung disease, heart disease, incontinence or osteoporosis.
  • Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, periodic limb movements disorder and advanced sleep phase syndrome.
  • Lifestyle changes such as more frequent naps, less physical and mental activity, and less exposure to sunlight.
  • Stress, sadness or anxiety. These feelings may come with retirement, losing loved ones, or medical or financial concerns.
  • For women, menopause. This transition can cause hot flashes and breathing changes that interfere with sleep.

Getting help

If pain, frequent urination, a chronic disease or any other medical problem is interfering with your sleep, talk to your doctor. The medical problem should be treated both for its own sake and the sake of your sleep.

If you're drowsy during the day or not sleeping well at night and you don't know why, ask your doctor about finding the cause of your sleep problems. He or she may recommend a sleep study to check for a sleep disorder.

Better ZZZs

At any age, you can take small and simple steps that help ensure a full and sound night's sleep. The National Institute on Aging offers these suggestions:

  • Go to sleep and get up at the same times every day, and limit daytime napping.
  • Exercise at regular times every day.
  • Avoid caffeine late in the day.
  • Skip the nightcap. Even a small amount of alcohol can make it harder to sleep through the night.
  • Create a safe and comfortable sleeping space. A dark, quiet and well-ventilated room is best. Consider putting a lamp and phone next to your bed. Make sure working smoke alarms are on every level of the house, and that all doors are locked.
  • Establish a routine. Listen to music, read a book, take a bath, or do some other relaxing thing just before bed each night.
  • Use your bedroom for sleeping. If you're not asleep or drowsy within 20 minutes of turning out the light and getting in bed, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy. Then go back to bed.

Sleep matters

Sleep problems can lead to more than drowsiness. According to the NSF, inadequate rest can lead to reduced energy, difficulty concentrating, a lousy mood, a higher risk for accidents and a lower tolerance for pain.

Getting older is no excuse for not sleeping well. If you have sleep problems, talk to your doctor.

Reviewed 2/9/2024

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