Pulse is a quarterly Gazette medical publication that highlights the survivors, volunteers and physicians who make our city a strong and healthy place to live.
Seniors often have problems sleeping: trouble falling and staying asleep, waking up extremely early, not feeling rested, falling asleep during the day, wanting to go to bed very early, craving multiple naps during the day. Lack of sleep can cause a variety of problems due to drowsiness, poor concentration, and inability to focus. Worse still, undiagnosed sleep disorders like breathing trouble and sleep apnea have been connected to hypertension, pulmonary problems, cardiovascular complaints, and compromised nervous system health.
Proper sleep improves concentration, aids memory formation, allows the body to repair cell damage, and keeps the immune system functioning at its best. A full night's sleep can also improve mood, reduce pain from chronic conditions, help control anxiety, and lead to better sleep the following night.
Why sleep is difficult for seniors
Changes in sleep-regulating hormones as people age can lead to more rapid sleep cycles. These cycles in turn cause multiple night waking, fragmented sleep, and decreases in the amount of deep sleep. Those who suffer from this problem end up feeling unrested. This same hormone shift can cause seniors to want to go to bed and wake up very early. These changes in sleep patterns alone are not necessarily disruptive and can often be addressed with a shift to an earlier bedtime and good sleep hygiene. However, they can lead to other sleep problems and negative side effects, like anxiety, depression and physical pain.
Arthritis and other chronic conditions can also cause sleep-disturbing pain. Seniors with cardiovascular issues are often advised to sleep in an angled position, which many people find uncomfortable for sleeping. Both bladder and prostrate problems can cause seniors to wake up for bathroom breaks during the night. Also, many medications can cause sleep problems. In all of these instances, the senior's medical care provider should be advised of the sleep problem.
Exercise, health habits affect sleep
A lack of exercise can either make people feel tired and unmotivated all the time, or make them never tired enough to sleep. Exercise, along with its many other benefits, releases chemicals that promote better sleep. A short daily walk, bit of gardening, or other low-impact activity can greatly improve the quantity and quality of one's sleep.
Many seniors turn to sleep aids, both prescription and over-the-counter. One of the potential problems with this route is that sleep aids can interact negatively with a range of medications and/or they can cause drowsiness that itself leads to accidents and falls. Worse, many sleep aids can cause confusion and disorientation. For seniors with any level of dementia, this potential side effect must be closely monitored and avoided since it can lead to night fears, heightened anxiety, and even worse: sleep problems.
Finally, stress, anxiety, and depression can all interfere with healthful sleep. It’s a vicious cycle, since a lack of sleep can also cause stress, anxiety, and depression. Many seniors experience greater levels of anxiety as they age. Finding a way to express worries and concerns – no matter how small they may seem – can impact getting a good night's sleep. Having social connections makes a difference in many seniors' anxiety levels. Serious emotional issues, such as grief from a departed spouse or dear friend or clinical depression, may necessitate the help of a trained medical or mental health professional.
Dorothy Silvanic is a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. In 2011, she returned with her family to the Colorado Springs area, attracted by the outstanding school systems, year-round sports and outdoor activities and beauty of the Front Range. Her interest in helping seniors is a natural extension of her service ethic, and a way to give back to her community. She has first-hand experience finding quality care for loved ones who faced a variety of specific in-home care needs, and looks forward to providing the best quality care to seniors in the Colorado Springs area.