Throughout a person’s lifetime, sleep patterns change. For example, infants need 16 to 20 hours of sleep, but teens and adults need far less: an average of 8 hours nightly. While some changes are normal, others can be problematic. Many people experience changes in sleep patterns over time that leave them sleep-deprived. In fact, a National Sleep Foundation poll found that 44 percent of older adults reported symptoms of insomnia more than once per week.

Sleeping Patterns

As people age, many experience changes in the rhythms and patterns of sleep. A normal, healthy sleep pattern repeats in a cycle of light sleep, deep sleep and dream or REM sleep with the cycle lasting for about 90-minute increments repeated throughout the night. When these patterns change or are interrupted, the result is sleep deprivation. Many older adults experience a shift in this pattern and spend more time in light sleep. That means they miss out on the restorative deep and REM sleep needed to feel truly rested. Others experience sleep interruptions. In this case, it takes longer to fall asleep and the person may awake several times throughout the night.

What causes sleeping issues?

These changes can be the result of several factors of the normal aging process. For instance, hormonal changes occur in the aging process. Women experiencing menopause may have symptoms such as night sweats that interrupt sleep. Other health and psychological factors can also impede restful sleep. Older adults may experience stress or anxiety. They are also more likely to suffer from chronic ailments including sleep apnea, hypertension, restless leg syndrome, GERD, diabetes, asthma and Parkinson’s disease, all of which have been linked to sleep problems.

What happens when you don’t sleep?

Chronic sleep deprivation can also have its own negative effects. It is common for those having trouble with sleep to feel fatigue. Not only does fatigue reduce productivity, it is also associated with obesity. Chronically fatigued persons tend to eat more carbohydrates and crave sugar due to an energy shortage. Poor sleep has also been linked to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Psychological symptoms also become evident in sleep deprivation. Higher levels of anxiety, depression and irritability are common in those who do not get good quality sleep. There are also resulting problems with cognitive function. Those who sleep poorly may have lapses in memory, chronic inattentiveness or may have trouble with logical thought, problem-solving and multi-tasking.

How does someone fix their sleeping issues?

Fortunately, there are ways to address sleep problems. First, it is important to have a conversation with a health professional regarding sleep problems. If there are any underlying physical or mental health issues a physician can help address and treat these. The result: better overall health and sleep.

When addressing sleep issues, it is also important to avoid stimulants and other substances that have negative effects. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants. Stimulants result in alertness that will make it hard for the body to relax and sleep. Many people mistakenly think that a nightcap will help. Unfortunately, though alcohol is a depressant, it interrupts the natural sleep pattern and can exacerbate the problem.

Finally, addressing anxiety and stress is important. Having a soothing bedtime routine can go a long way. Experts recommend that all work ceases an hour before bedtime. In that hour, dim the lights, power down electronics and avoid heavy meals that may result in indigestion. Taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book or sitting quietly with a warm cup of tea can all be part of a bedtime routine. The idea is to make it quiet, relaxing and personalized so that the body can ease into sleep once in bed.