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A Good Night’s Sleep Gets Harder to Come by with Age

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In our busy lives, getting enough rest can be challenging at any age. But for older people it becomes even more difficult, perhaps not so much because of stress-related sleep deprivation but because of changing sleep patterns. As we age, we not only need less sleep, we also don’t sleep as deeply and wake up more often during the night.

While these changes are not always cause for concern, they can become problematic if they lead to persistent sleep disorders with potentially serious health effects.

As younger adults, we typically spend much of our sleep time in a state called “deep sleep.” Closer to the morning hours, we enter a different phase named “REM” (rapid eye movement), a lighter form of sleep where the eyes move rapidly behind closed lids. Usually, there are several back-and-forth switches between deep sleep and REM periods throughout the night, but the latter gradually dominate and let us eventually wake up.

Not so with older folks. Deep sleep phases become shorter and turn more often into lighter REM sleep and actual awakening, possibly three to four times per night.

It is this repeated awakening that can do long-term damage. Deep sleep is the most restorative phase when both body and mind can heal from their daily wear and tear. If it is interrupted or cut short too many times, these necessary healing processes are prevented from taking place. On the outside, you may just feel groggy and tired in the morning, but on the inside much of the repair work meant to keep you healthy remains undone.

There can be a number of causes for sleep disruption. Besides age-related changes of sleep patterns, you may be dealing with the effects of late-night consumption of food, alcohol or caffeine, interference from medications, chronic disease like high blood pressure and heart disease, sleep apnea, need for frequent urination, and others.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the health consequences from sleep-related disorders are far from benign. Studies have shown associations between disturbed or insufficient sleep and unhealthy weight gain and other diet-related ills. For older adults, the results can be even more dire. Researchers have found that frequent sleep disruption in the elderly is a leading cause for depression and other detrimental effects on mental health.

Regrettably, sleep disturbance, especially when it affects older patients, is not taken seriously enough by many healthcare providers. The fact is, it is not an inevitable part of aging.

Helpful steps to prevent sleep interruptions during the night are:

• Avoiding heavy meals, alcohol, and caffeine close to bedtime
• Avoiding large amounts of water and other liquids late at night
• Avoiding strenuous exercise and other physical activities shortly before sleep
• Avoiding stimulating or aggravating interactions (like problem solving, arguing, watching movies, listening to loud music, etc.)
• Practicing good sleep hygiene (like keeping bedrooms dark and at low temperature)
• Using relaxation practices (like meditating, yoga, massage, etc.)

Many people with sleep troubles are tempted to take sleeping pills or supplements containing melatonin and the likes, and that may indeed be part of the solution. But there can also be a risk of addiction. Be advised that most of these remedies have side effects and should not be taken without consulting a physician. For these reasons, most experts recommend not to take sleep medicines for extended periods of time.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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