Sleep occurs in multiple stages. The sleep cycle includes dreamless periods of light and deep sleep, with occasional periods of active dreaming (REM sleep). The sleep cycle is repeated several times during the night.
With aging, sleep patterns tend to change. Most people find that aging causes them to have a harder time falling asleep, and that they awaken more often.
Total sleep time remains the same or is slightly decreased (6.5 to 7 hours per night). It may be harder to fall asleep. The transition between being asleep and awake is often abrupt, giving older people the feeling of being more of a "light sleeper" than when they were younger.
Less time is spent in deep, dreamless sleep. Older people average three or four awakenings each night, with increased recall of being awake.
Awakenings are related to less time spent in deep sleep, and to factors such as the need to get up to urinate (nocturia), anxiety, and discomfort or pain associated with chronic illnesses.
EFFECT OF CHANGES
Sleeping difficulty is an annoying problem, but it is seldom dangerous. Because sleep is lighter and awakenings more frequent, older people may feel deprived of sleep even when total sleep time has not changed.
Sleep deprivation can eventually cause confusion and other mental changes. It is treatable, and symptoms should lessen when adequate sleep is obtained. Sleep problems are also a common symptom of depression, so you should be evaluated and treated for depression if it might be causing the sleep problem.
The elderly respond differently to medications than do younger adults, so it is very important to consult with a health care provider before taking medications for sleep. Avoid sleep medications if at all possible. Medications for depression, on the other hand, can be very helpful if depression contributes to the cause of the sleep problem. Most antidepressants do not produce the problems associated with sleeping medications.
Sometimes a mild antihistamine is more effective than an actual sleeping pill for relieving short-term insomnia, but even nonprescription drugs can have side effects.
Sleeping medications (such as benzodiazepines) should be used only as recommended, and only for a short time. Some can lead to dependence (needing to take the drug to function) or addiction (compulsive use despite adverse consequences) in some cases. Some build up in your body, and toxic effects can develop if you take them for a long time. Confusion, delirium, falls, and other side effects can develop.
You can take measures to promote sleep:
- A light bedtime snack may be helpful. Many people find that warm milk increases sleepiness, because it contains a natural, sedative-like amino acid.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine (found in coffee, tea, cola drinks, and so on) for at least 3 or 4 hours before bed.
- Do not take naps during the day.
- Exercise (moderately) in the afternoon.
- Try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time each morning.
- Use the bed only for sleep or sexual activity.
If you can't fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet activity such as reading or listening to music.
When you feel sleepy, get back in bed and try again. If not successful in 20 minutes, repeat.
Drinking alcohol at bedtime may make you sleepy, but it is best to avoid it, because alcohol increases awakenings later in the night.