Sleeping cat on sleeping lady's lap

Do you find that the older you get, the more trouble you have sleeping? You’re not alone. Insomnia is a fairly common problem at any age, but even more so once you hit 60. It’s estimated that half the people in the United States who are 60 and older either have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, one reason why is that with age, a shift in circadian rhythm makes many people sleepy early in the evening and wide awake early in the morning. The old adage, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” comes to mind, but if that hasn’t been your pattern, the change may rob you of a good night’s sleep.

Another cause of insomnia in older people is the need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night — sometimes more than once. (Walking from the bed to the bathroom can also be a fall waiting to happen.) If you’re getting up more than usual, it’s important to check out the cause, oftentimes either prostate problems (in men) or incontinence.

Medical causes of insomnia

Chronic medical conditions and the medications used to treat them may also interfere with sleep.

  • Heartburn or acid reflux disease
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Depression
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Breathing disorders
  • Chronic pain

As people age, they tend to take more medications with side effects that include drowsiness and insomnia.

What can happen if you have chronic insomnia

Not getting a good night’s sleep every once in a while probably won’t cause any problems, but when it’s a nightly occurrence, insomnia can lead to a number of physical and mental health issues.

  • Increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Lower performance
  • Slowed reaction time while driving
  • Higher risk of falls and other accidents
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Substance abuse
  • Weakened immune system
  • Memory impairment

What the brain does while we sleep

Studies have shown that sleep helps restore and repair the brain. It’s also during sleep that the brain decides what information it took in during the day should be forgotten and what should be remembered.

A paper published recently in Science suggests that while we sleep, our brain is hard at work cleaning house — sweeping away all the waste and litter that accumulated that day — including beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common cause of dementia.

Another report that came out last summer also showed that sleep disorders may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco conducted a sleep study on a large sample of veterans and found that those with diagnosed sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, were 30 percent more likely to suffer dementia than veterans without those problems.

So far, none of the recent studies on the specific role of sleep is conclusive, but it’s clear that sleep is critical for our physical and mental health.

How many hours do we need?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), children and adolescents need more sleep than adults. Infants need about 16 hours a day and teenagers about nine. Older adults need about the same amount as young adults — between seven and eight hours a night.

What to do if you can’t sleep

If your insomnia has been going on for more than three or four weeks or if you can’t function well during the day, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. In some cases, therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy or medication (or a combination of the two) may be necessary.

Otherwise, try some of these tips:

  • Avoid daytime naps, especially if they are longer than 20 to 30 minutes or happen late in the day.
  • Go outside for a walk or do some form of exercise for at least 20 minutes four to five hours before you go to bed.
  • Eat a light dinner.
  • Don’t drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages after lunch.
  • Avoid alcohol in the late afternoon and evening.
  • Don’t smoke or use a nicotine-containing product in the evening.
  • Turn off TV and all light-emitting electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed.
  • Take a warm bath and/or listen to soft music.
  • Get your bedroom ready for sleeping. Dim the lights, close the curtains, make sure the temperature is cool and comfortable and cover your alarm clock so you can’t see the time if you wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Go to the bathroom before bed
  • Try to go to bed at the same time every night.
  • Wake up at the same time each morning, even on weekends.

Do you have a sleep tip to share?

When I can’t sleep, I read. What do you do?

This post originally appeared in the Advantage Home Care Aging in Place blog, which I also write.