Sometimes my mom complains of insomnia, or not sleeping well the night before.
Experts already know that as we age, we encounter changes to our sleeping patterns.
Likewise, it’s probably a reasonable assumption that as we get older, we may not sleep as soundly as we did when we were younger.
In general, older adults tend to get sleepy earlier in the evening and tend to sleep less soundly as their age increases.
However, even though aging will likely change our sleep patterns, it’s also common for older adults, like my mom, to develop seemingly unrelated health problems that, in fact, can cause sleep disturbances.
So, when my mom or any older adult complains that they aren’t sleeping well, figuring out what’s going on with their overall health should always be the first step in trying to improve things.
5 Common Causes Of Sleep Disturbance
1.Underlying Medical Problem
Some older adults suffer from what is termed “primary” sleep disorders. However, many other older adults experience “secondary” sleep problems, meaning they are secondary to a separate underlying medical condition. Ironically, many times this medical condition’s main symptoms are not sleep related.
2. Snoring, Sleep Apnea
SRBD, or Sleep-Related Breathing Disorders encompasses a wide spectrum of problems related to how people breathe when they sleep.
Sleep Apnea is a common ailment and is known to cause other health problems, especially in older adults. Basically, with sleep apnea, a person has frequent pauses in their breathing during sleep.
There are several forms of sleep apnea. One form is called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and involves snoring while sleeping. Another less common form is central sleep apnea (CSA) and refers to actual pauses in breathing and is related to changes in the brain.
As many as half of the adults aged 68 were found to have signs of some type of sleep disorder (SRBD). Over a third met the criteria for sleep apnea, The associations overall are strongest in adults aged 40-70.
If you or an older adult are noticing more daytime sleepiness or less restful sleep at night, you may want to pursue sleep testing and an accurate sleep diagnosis and also experiment with various tools now available to minimize apnea.
3. Periodic Limb Movement
This condition, unfortunately, is not as easily treatable as others. PLM causes involuntary movements while sleeping, usually in the lower limbs. It can affect the toes, hips, ankles, or knees. While it may not wake the sleeper, it can be annoying to a bed partner.
As many as 45% of older adults experience Periodic Limb Movement. Many of these adults are otherwise healthy. However, PLM usually co-exists with other disturbances such as sleep apnea and rarely occurs on its own.
At this time, there are no pharmacological treatments for PLM lightweight cushions and supports help to minimize sleep disturbance.
4. Restless Leg Syndrome
RLS exhibits itself as an itching crawling, or restlessness as a person is trying to fall asleep. The symptoms are unpleasant but not painful. Movement tends to improve its status immediately. The exact biological cause of RLS is still not understood. However, scientists are fairly confident that low dopamine and iron levels in the brain may be the culprits. They do not feel that RLS is JUST a neurological disorder at this time.
Insomnia is the big kahuna of all sleep problems. It entails having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. It affects a wide range of middle and older age people. In fact, Up to a quarter of all older adults report symptoms of insomnia.
Not surprisingly, insomnia has been associated with anxiety, depression, fatigue, low quality of life, cognitive decline and other long-term health issues.
Things to do in an attempt to ward off insomnia? Try tracking your sleep using a sleep journal. Also, try all natural over-the-counter remedies such as melatonin.
Proven Ways To Treat Insomnia As We Age
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy For Insomnia – CBT-I is a special therapy that teaches a person to avoid negative thought patterns that promote insomnia. It stresses regular sleep habits, relaxation techniques, and other “tricks” such as stimulus control that improves sleep. CBT-I can be done in person or is also effective through online or self-help programs
- Mindfulness Meditation – Mindfulness Meditation is just as or more effective than traditional “sleep hygiene” in older adults. Local, in-person sleep mindfulness courses are readily available in many areas. Also, they are regularly offered at senior centers. There are several excellent workbooks and online courses for Sleep Meditation as well. Last, a surge in smartphone apps geared toward mindfulness meditation specifically for older adults with insomnia has sprung up in recent months. I have personally used one called Headspace and I like it.
- Exercise – Exercise, while regularly prescribed as a baseline treatment for insomnia, may actually be second or third in effectiveness behind the aforementioned CBT-I and Mindfulness Meditation options. Several recent randomized trials validated this claim and, in fact, one study found that exercise only had a “moderate” effect on chronic insomnia. And so, while exercise is very important to overall health, it may not be the best alternative for insomnia in older adults
- Melatonin – Melatonin is a hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycle. Several studies have shown that melatonin improved the sleep of older adults. More importantly, unlike benzodiazepine as well as other OTC drugs, melatonin did not seem to be associated with any adverse side effects. However, it should be noted that melatonin in the U.S, is a lightly regulated supplement and appears in varying grades of quality. Be sure to verify the concentration and quality of any melatonin supplement considered for sleep enhancement.
And so those are the main culprits of sleep disturbance and some of the ways to alleviate them.
For me, I’m having my mom start with a melatonin supplement and a CBT-I course at a retreat center near her home. I am also ordering a night sleeping mask and a blackout curtain to eliminate light disruption. Sleep sound machines are also very popular sleep aids these days.
How about you? Are there other symptoms or cures that you incur or that I missed? Feel free to comment or respond and sweet dreams to you and yours!