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Sleep Patterns and Seniors

Daylight Savings Time (DST) begins this weekend. Clocks will lurch forward one hour, with longer days ahead and more sunshine on the horizon. While the loss of one hour of sleep is regrettable, the promise of spring's arrival makes getting fewer "zzzzzzs" easier to handle.

One hour of time change may not seem like a big deal, but the changes it causes in our bodies is significant. The movement of the clock changes our principle time cue (sunlight!) for setting and resetting our natural circadian rhythms. Because of this change, our internal clock becomes out of sync with the day/night schedule to which we are accustomed. Especially in the first few weeks of DST, it is still dark when we wake up in the morning, which makes the new morning routine tougher to handle. For older Americans, who already have difficulty sleeping, DST can make the transition even tougher.

Why Sleep Changes for Seniors

It's a myth that seniors need less sleep. They require just as much as any adult, but because of a variety of issues, actually get less sleep.

What is true, however, is that seniors do adjust to earlier bedtimes and wakeup times. This is part of the natural process of aging, known as "advanced sleep phase syndrome". A person's internal clock begins to move, causing sleep to come earlier than in their younger days, and coincidentally, for them to wake up earlier. It's the same amount of sleep, just happening during different times of the day/night.

Seniors also experience a change in their sleep architecture as they age. They spend more time in the lighter phases of sleep and less time in the deeper REM sleep phase. The quality of the time asleep is affected, which can cause a person to be sleeping during the day. This daytime sleepiness may lead to a cycle of taking naps and then being awake at night due to that mid-day nap. This can lead to acute or chronic bouts of insomnia.

Insomnia is a large reason older people lose out on precious sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that insomnia can be long-lasting or come and go for a few days at a time. When we experience insomnia (difficulty falling asleep, waking up a lot during the night, waking too early and not being able to get back to sleep), our bodies do not get the deep restorative sleep needed feel refreshed and energized.

Insomnia is more prevalent in older adults. This could be related to medication side effects, poor sleep hygiene (our pre-bedtime routine habits), pain, movement and sleep disorders or neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Long-term insomnia can have detrimental effects on a person's overall health and well-being. Sleep is a critical part of our ability to function properly and keep our bodies in good working order.

How to Get Better Sleep

Soak up the sun! Since light is our primary environmental cue for being awake, expose yourself or your loved one to as much light during waking hours as possible. Light suppresses the production of melatonin (which induces sleep), thus if you wake up in the night, do not turn on the lights, TV or grab your phone. The exposure to the light will tell your brain that it's time to rise and shine. Perhaps too early!

Practice good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is the things we do (or don't do) leading up to bedtime that help us fall asleep and stay asleep. Cut out the caffeine and alcohol before bed. If you exercise (which you should), do it several hours before you plan to hit the hay. A strenuous workout right before bedtime and you will not be able to fall asleep. Create rituals that calm you down and tell your brain that it's time to begin the routine of going to sleep.

Cool it down. A cool bedroom is a better environment for sleep than one that is too warm. Many seniors tend to feel colder and may prefer a higher thermostat setting. However, at bedtime taking the temperature down a few degrees could ultimately lead to more restorative sleep.

Set a routine. The more you can be regular with when you wake up, go to bed, eat and exercise the better chance you have of your sleep falling in line with that regularity, too.

Heritage Health: Therapy & Senior Care provides rehabilitative therapy services and skilled nursing care to seniors across the state of Illinois. Find the Heritage Health nearest you by visiting our website.

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Friday, November 22, 2019

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