Healthy Aging Column – Getting Your Zzzzzs

It is not uncommon to hear some people say, "Grandma is such a light sleeper." Older people are described as light sleepers because they spend less time in the quiet, deep and restful stages of sleep. As people age, the amount of uninterrupted sleep is less.

The changes in sleep patterns begin about the time people reach 40 or 50 years of age.  By age 75, most people are waking up several times during the night because of sound, light or pain interruptions. Some common sleep problems related to aging include problem sleepiness and sleep disorders.

Problem sleepiness means that sleepiness interferes with daily routines and activities or reduces the ability to function. Causes may be interruption of the natural sleep-wake cycle, with sleepiest times coming between midnight and 7 in the morning and 1 and 4 in the afternoon; or it could be the person gets inadequate sleep, usually less than seven to eight hours per night.

Sleep disorders that can contribute to problem sleepiness are insomnia,  sleep apnea,  restless leg syndrome or prescribed, over-the-counter and social drugs. The National Center on Sleep Disorders Research defines insomnia as taking more that 30 to 45 minutes to fall asleep after going to bed, waking up frequently during the night, waking up and being unable to go back to sleep or waking up tired.

Sleep apnea comes in at least two types. Obstructive apnea is an involuntary pause in breathing. Central sleep apnea is caused by the brain not sending the right signals to the breathing muscles. Symptoms of apnea include daytime sleepiness and loud snoring. Research has shown that sleep apnea also may lead to hypertension, heart disease, heart attack and stroke. With proper diagnosis, both types of sleep apnea can be treated and sleeping improved.

Restless Leg Syndrome causes unpleasant sensations such as tingling or pain in the legs or arms. These symptoms frequently occur in the evening. The person with Restless Leg Syndrome needs to frequently stretch or move the legs or arms to relieve the uncomfortable or painful symptoms. This frequent moving and stretching can make it difficult to fall asleep. Good sleep habits and prescription medications can help relieve the symptoms.

Prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs and social drugs can affect sleep patterns. Some prescriptions for blood pressure, heart disease and asthma can interrupt sleep.  Stimulants like nicotine and caffeine can make it difficult to fall asleep. Alcohol interrupts the quiet, deep and restful stages of sleep even though some people think it helps them relax and fall asleep.

Sleep disorders can have a negative impact on the health of individuals. Sleep disturbances increase the risk for elevated cholesterol levels and poor blood glucose management. Furthermore, the National Institute on Aging reports that men and women with sleep disturbances are 18 percent more likely to need frequent visits to the doctor.  

The National Institute on Aging provides the following suggestions to improve sleep patterns.

– Follow a regular schedule. Go to sleep and get up the same time every day.

– Take short naps after lunch and exercise moderately in the afternoon. Moderate afternoon exercise helps a person awaken fewer times during the night, increases the amount of quiet, deep and restful sleep, and keeps a person from nodding off in the evening before bedtime.

– Drink a small amount of a warm, non-caffeine beverage just before going to bed.

– Create a safe and comfortable place to sleep. Darken the room, cool the room and add soft background sound or music. Use the bedroom only for sleeping, not for watching television or doing computer work.

– Try not to worry about sleep. Play visualization games. For example, visualize a black cat on a black velvet pillow on a black corduroy sofa, or tell yourself that it is five minutes before you have to get up and you are just trying to get a few winks.

-Treat heartburn if you have it. Find out if prescription medications keep you from sleeping, and if they do, talk with your doctor about changing prescriptions.

If you try these suggestions and are still so tired you cannot function normally for more than two weeks, visit your family doctor or a sleep disorder specialist.

For more information on Healthy Aging, go to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Web page at and select Info Online, click on Consumer and Family and select Healthy Aging.

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by Janet Benavente, Family and Consumer Extension Agent, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Adams County