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Many of us think that as we age, we need less sleep in order to function well during our waking hours, possibly due to the perceived lack of activity of older folks as compared to the young who run, jump, and play all day long. There is no general consensus among sleep professionals on this subject. It is clear that kids do seem to require more sleep in order to maintain such an active lifestyle. However, one thing is certain, we all need a solid night’s sleep in order to keep running at optimal speed during the day. For many older folks, that is just not happening. Why? Well, there are a few agreed upon reasons. As we age, our lifestyles change, which can and does create potential sleep disturbing issues. For example, we take on more responsibilities, which can develop into worrisome thought, which then can lead to sleep interruption. So as we get older there are many “issues” that can develop, thus adding to sleep disorders. However, there are other more specific reasons for these sleep disorders. Sleep apnea is a major cause of sleep disruption. Apneas (and there are several forms: obstructive, central, and mixed) are basically an absence of airflow for 10 seconds or longer during our sleep period. When multiple sleep apneas occur during a sleep period, restful sleep is clearly interrupted and the solid night’s sleep is lost.

There are also sleep related movement disorders, such as restless leg syndrome which is the need to move one’s legs as a result of “uncomfortable” urges. There is also the more prevalent movement disorder, periodic limp movement disorder, where one’s limbs (again, usually the legs) jerk every 20-40 seconds during sleep periods. Both of these sleep related movement disorders can easily be seen as disruptive to sleep.

REM behavior disorder is a disruption of our normal dream process. In this disorder, the elder (and often in men beginning at age 60) experiences incomplete REM atonia, or a temporary paralysis (low muscle tone during REM), that prevents the dream from being enacted, and can often manifest itself in more violent dreams forms. Often, this form of sleep disorder is a precursor to another form of illness, such as dementia or Parkinson’s.

The result of these different sleep disorders can be correlated to many of the elder’s symptoms: lack of full night’s sleep, waking up often during the night, difficulty falling asleep, and increased confusion. Often, an elder will seem more depressed, have associated memory issues, will begin napping more during the day and/or begin using more over-the-counter sleep medications as the effects of their sleep disorder(s) continue. It is important to recognize these symptoms in order to treat the underlying disorder.

And several easy treatments are readily at hand:

  • *      Develop a healthier lifestyle (eat better, exercise regularly, etc.)
  • *      Avoid eating too close to bedtime.
  • *      Develop a bedtime routine and stick with it.
  • *      Use the bed for sleep and intimacy, not for watching TV, etc.
  • *      Don’t use caffeine prior to bedtime.
  • *      Put your worries to bed before you put yourself to bed.
  • *      Avoid daytime napping.
  • *      Keep the bedroom dark, quiet, and cool during sleep periods.

There are plenty of medically related issues that create sleep disorders for elder folks (medical illnesses, medication side effects, etc.). Try to recognize the symptoms of the sleep related disorders that we discussed above, have a discussion about those symptoms with your elder, and move forward with either medical treatment (via a physician) or with a well thought out plan of our own. Remember, adequate sleep is mandatory for everyone. Without that necessary sleep our bodies will begin to break down and malfunction. Take care of yourselves and take care of those around you.

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