Sleep presents a classic catch-22 scenario for the aging: A bad night's sleep in an elderly adult is usually caused by a condition or its medication, but a lack of sleep only worsens the condition, thus making satisfying sleep an even more impossible prospect. In one study, researchers found that a night of fragmented sleep caused major problems in the body's response to pain, so that subjects felt pain more easily, demonstrated increased inability to deal with it and developed additional pain in the form of headaches and backaches [source: Kolata]. This is just adding insult to injury if chronic pain is the factor that kept you from sleeping in the first place.
In another study, which followed nearly 3,000 women over the age of 70, subjects who got less than five hours of sleep per night were 47 percent more likely to fall at some point during the year they were monitored [source: Bakalar]. A lack of sleep can also cause memory problems and depression, not to mention the decreased quality of life that comes with being tired and grumpy all day.
Are the elderly doomed to march on, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived? Of course not. If you experience sleep problems that are related to another medical condition, speak to your doctor about the problem -- making a minor tweak, such as the time you take your medications, could make a huge difference.
Many elderly people and their doctors are too quick, however, to turn to another medication to address the sleep issue. According to a study conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, sleeping pills are commonly overused and abused by the elderly [source: Kolata]. Sleeping pills are more likely to have adverse side effects in this group, in part because the elderly are usually taking so many other medications, raising the risk for negative drug interactions. Some side effects of sleeping pills can also mimic the symptoms of dementia.
Rather than popping another pill, consider some of the reasons that you may not be able to get to sleep, remembering that you sleep less as you age. Are you depressed and bored, using sleep as an escape from the world? Do you take a long afternoon nap and follow it up with a giant cup of coffee? Consider your habits, as well as these sleep tips:
- Follow a regular sleeping schedule, so that you go to bed and rise at the same time each day.
- Avoid long or frequent naps during the day.
- Get regular exercise.
- Go outside or sit in natural light; it regulates your body's sleep-wake cycle.
- Minimize caffeine and alcohol.
- Use your bed for sleeping only; if you don't fall asleep in 15 minutes, get up, move to a chair and try another activity.
For more on how aging affects the human body, see the links on the next page.