A Good Night's Sleep

Last Editorial Review: 4/16/2003

We all look forward to a good night's sleep. Getting enough sleep and sleeping well help us stay healthy. Many older people do not enjoy a good night's sleep on a regular basis. They have trouble falling or staying asleep. Sleep patterns change as we age, but disturbed sleep and waking up tired every day is not part of normal aging. In fact, troubled sleep may be a sign of emotional or physical disorders and something you should talk about with a doctor or sleep specialist.

Sleep and Aging

There are two kinds of sleep in a normal sleep cycle - rapid eye movement or dreaming sleep (REM) and quiet sleep (non-REM). Everyone has about four or five cycles of REM and non-REM sleep a night. For older people, the amount of time spent in the deepest stages of non-REM sleep decreases. This may explain why older people are thought of as light sleepers. Although the amount of sleep each person needs varies widely, the average range is between 7 and 8 hours a night. As we age, the amount of sleep we can expect to get at any one time drops off. By age 75, for many reasons, some people may find they are waking up several times each night. But, no matter what your age, talk to a doctor if your sleep patterns change.

Common Sleep Problems

At any age, insomnia is the most common sleep complaint. Insomnia means:

  • Taking a long time to fall asleep (more than 30 to 45 minutes)
  • Waking up many times each night
  • Waking up early and being unable to get back to sleep
  • Waking up feeling tired
With rare exceptions, insomnia is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself.

Insomnia can be linked with other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, a common problem that causes breathing to stop for periods of up to 2 minutes, many times each night.

There are two kinds of sleep apnea:

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea is an involuntary pause in breathing - air is blocked (obstructed) and cannot flow in or out of the person's nose or mouth.
  2. Central sleep apnea is less common and occurs when the brain doesn't send the right signals to start the breathing muscles.

    In either case, the sleeper is totally unaware of his or her struggle to breathe. Daytime sleepiness coupled with loud snoring at night are clues that you may have sleep apnea. A doctor specializing in sleep disorders can make a diagnosis and recommend treatment. Treatments include learning to sleep in the correct position, devices that help keep your airways open, medication, and surgery.

Suggestions for a Good Night's Sleep

A good night's sleep can make a big difference in how you feel. Here are some suggestions to help you:

  • Follow a regular schedule - go to sleep and get up at the same time. Try not to nap too much during the day - you might be less sleepy at night.
  • Try to exercise at regular times each day.
  • Try to get some natural light in the afternoon each day.
  • Be careful about what you eat. Don't drink beverages with caffeine late in the day. Caffeine is a stimulant and can keep you awake. Also, if you like a snack before bed, a warm beverage and a few crackers may help.
  • Don't drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes to help you sleep. Even small amounts of alcohol can make it harder to stay asleep. Smoking is dangerous for many reasons including the hazard of falling asleep with a lit cigarette. The nicotine in cigarettes is also a stimulant.
  • Create a safe and comfortable place to sleep. Make sure there are locks on all doors and smoke alarms on each floor. A lamp that's easy to turn on and a phone by your bed may be helpful. The room should be dark, well ventilated, and as quiet as possible.
  • Develop a bedtime routine. Do the same things each night to tell your body that it's time to wind down. Some people watch the evening news, read a book, or soak in a warm bath.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleeping. After turning off the light, give yourself about 15 minutes to fall asleep. If you are still awake and not drowsy, get out of bed. When you get sleepy, go back to bed.
  • Try not to worry about your sleep. Some people find that playing mental games is helpful. For example, think black - a black cat on a black velvet pillow on a black corduroy sofa, etc.; or tell yourself that it's 5 minutes before you have to get up and you're just trying to get a few extra winks.
If you are so tired during the day that you cannot function normally and if this lasts for more than 2 to 3 weeks, you should see your family doctor or a sleep disorders specialist.

For more information, please read the Sleep Aids and Stimulants article.

Some of the above information has been provided with the kind permission of the National Institute on Aging (http://www.nia.nih.gov/).

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