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Sleep Problems in Older Adults: How to Reclaim Your Sleep

If you stare at the ceiling, or toss and turn most nights, you’re not alone. Many adults find themselves facing sleep problems or experiencing a change in sleep patterns as they age. Lack of sleep can lead to risk factors for other diseases, so it’s important to identify and address problems early on.

Sleep and Its Function

In the past, sleep was thought to be a passive activity, where the brain simply turned off. However, Stephen Smagula, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, notes that this is simply not the case. “Scientists now have evidence that sleep replenishes our energy supplies and removes waste products,” he says.

Those “waste products” are from brain cell activity and information processing during the day. In other words, sleep might work as a garbage truck that removes the unimportant things from your brain.

Sleep Issues in Older Adults

Sleep patterns often change when you get older. If you were to compare the sleep of younger adults with that of older adults, you’d find a difference. “Older adults’ sleep gets lighter, shorter, and more fragmented,” says Dr. Smagula. “In addition, there is a higher risk for sleep apnea. The lack of oxygen caused by sleep apnea can contribute to problems like depression, dementia, heart disease, and diabetes.”

The good news? Dr. Smagula suggests several actions you can take to improve your sleep and health.

Protecting Your Sleep

If you’re concerned about getting adequate sleep, there are several ways to get more sleep at night. Dr. Smagula recommends the following tips:

Remember the Sleep Hygiene Rules

Having good sleep hygiene is the first line of defense in getting a good night’s rest. This means waking up at the same time every day and going to bed when you feel tired. Also, preventive measures, such as avoiding caffeine after lunch and eliminating nicotine and alcohol, all can help you get more restful sleep.

Find a Relaxing Routine

Another way to improve your sleep and health is to calm both your body and brain. Whether it’s a warm glass of milk or decaffeinated tea, creating a relaxing routine, and making sure your bedroom is quiet, cool, and calm also can lead to sleeping better at night.

Know Your Body Clock

To our bodies, it’s best to be awake during the day and asleep at night. “Generally, we want you to get your light during the day, especially in the morning,” explains Dr. Smagula. “It can be confusing for our bodies’ clocks to see too much light at night, which can imitate the sun and shift our schedules.”

Rule Out Underlying Health Issues

Although there are many behavioral modifications and approaches you can take, it’s still important to determine if health issues are causing sleep problems. Always check with your doctor.

Seek Treatment

If you’ve tried to follow the sleep hygiene rules with little success, a specialist can help. Sleep issues in older adults can be examined and treated by the experts at UPMC.

Sleeping like a baby doesn’t have to be a dream. Start making changes now to help protect and improve your sleep in the future.

To learn more or make an appointment with one of our sleep experts, visit the UPMC Sleep Medicine Center.

If you have questions about full, in-network access to UPMC doctors and hospitals, please call our help line at 1-855-646-8762.