The human body is incredible! As a new-born, we spend nearly seventy percent of our day sleeping and as we age, we remain awake for nearly seventy percent of the day! Good quality sleep is as important for an individual as a daily shower! When we sleep, the brain is flushed with a cerebrospinal fluid called galanin that washes the toxins that collect in the brain during the day.
While we know from observation that the elderly sleep much lesser than they would have in their younger years, medical science tells us the cause and effect of the same. A great deal of medical research on the nuances of sleep over the years proves that it is the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus that regulates the ability of a human to sleep. This cluster of nuclei called the VLPO, may thus be called the “sleep switch” in the brain.
What causes sleep disorders in the elderly?
Lesions in the VLPO causes insomnia and leads to lesser production of galanin. Ultimately, the degeneration of the VLPO, as we grow older is the real cause of age-related sleep loss. While it may seem natural for older people to sleep less, the consistent lack of rest may lead to Alzheimer’s disease and other related neurological degeneration.
The other medical reason cited for sleep deprivation as a person ages is the reduction in production of sleep-inducing hormones such as melatonin. As people age, the body secretes less melatonin that is produced with the onset of darkness in a 24-hour day cycle.
Lesser melatonin thus interrupts the working of our internal body clock and results in sleep deprivation as we age. Better sleep may not only prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and lead to a better-quality life for seniors, it may also prevent other conditions such as heart diseases, depression and anxiety.
Sleep related disorders in seniors
According to sleep researchers, while sleep patterns may vary for seniors 50-60% of the elderly suffer from the following common sleep related disorders:
Discomfort or pain- Pain and sleeplessness can become a vicious cycle for the elderly. Lower back pain, diabetic nerve pain, arthritis may all be age-induced pain that can lead to sleep deprivation in older people.
Restless Leg Syndrome - Around 9-20% of the elderly suffer from Restless Leg Syndrome. Uncomfortable sensations such as prickling, itching, or crawling of the skin results in an urge to move their legs while resting or sleeping. This makes it difficult for an individual to get adequate sleep.
Night-time urination- Night-time urination, also known as nocturia is often another age-related problem faced by nearly 80% of older adults. Frequent trips to the washroom lead to fragmented sleep, daytime tiredness and increases the risk of dangerous falls for the elderly.
Sleep Apnea- While sleep apnea is not strictly age-related and can impact 2-9% of adults, obstructive sleep apnea is common beyond the age of 60 especially among men. This is essentially a respiratory disorder that may lead to a partial or complete collapse of the upper airway during sleep. This condition, often recognised through symptoms such as loud snoring and restlessness for elders, leads to low energy levels and daytime drowsiness.
Improved sleep hygiene can help
While the above-mentioned sleep related disorders are common in seniors, they can be controlled to a great extent through a series of steps that can help improve sleep hygiene considerably. These are as follows:
Light but regular exercise is a great way for seniors to improve their overall health and lead a better quality of life. Regular exercise is also a great way to induce better quality sleep. A series of fun activities depending on age, agility and health conditions can be a key factor in improving sleep patterns.
Removal of bedroom distractions
Bright lights, cell phones and televisions are the just the things to stay away from for those wanting a full night’s rest. For seniors feeling sleep deprived, it is advisable to move the electronics away from the bedroom and turn off everything at least an hour before bed.
Avoid substances that discourage sleep
Substances such as tobacco, caffeine alcohol and even large meals late into the evening are best avoided four to five hours before bedtime for seniors. Ideally, a light meal in the early hours of the evening, followed by a walk may help the elderly sleep better.
Maintaining a regular routine
It is a great idea to inculcate habits that give you a sense of comfort to make bedtime more comfortable. A warm bath, reading or listening to music may be good bedtime rituals to consider. Maintaining the same schedule, i.e going to bed and waking up at specific times with intent may help improve sleep quality considerably.
Safety while sleeping
As a person grows older and reaches his or her golden years, it is important to keep the safety aspect in mind and implement changes in the bedroom accordingly. Here are some tips to ensure safety in the bedroom of an elderly person. The first thing to consider is the placement of furniture and other objects in the room. Rugs, cords and even small stools are potential hazards in the bedroom of an older person.
Keep the light switch within reach
A bedside lamp on the nightstand is highly recommended for a senior’s bedroom. This reduces the need to stumble out of bed and reduces the risk of falls and injuries. If the bathroom is at a distance from the bedroom, it may be a good idea to use motion sensors in the pathway.
Telephone by the bed
While this may seem contradictory to the point of keeping electronic devices in the bedroom as mentioned earlier, it is of primary importance for an elderly person to have a telephone within reach, with emergency numbers on speed dial. However, if you are using a cell phone, avoid the temptation to browse your phone and look at notifications.
Growing older is unavoidable, but with adequate care and caution over a period of time, the golden years may be just the years to look forward to sans any sleep disorders.