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Changes in Sleep Patterns

As people age they tend to have a harder time falling asleep and more trouble staying asleep than when they were younger. It is a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age. In fact, research demonstrates that our sleep needs remain constant throughout adulthood.

Michael V. Vitiello, PhD, Editor-in-Chief of Sleep Medicine Reviews is based at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and reports that along with the physical changes that occur as we get older, changes to our sleep patterns are a part of the normal aging process.

Changes in the patterns of our sleep - what specialists call "sleep architecture" - may contribute to sleep problems. Sleep occurs in multiple stages including dreamless periods of light and deep sleep, and occasional periods of active dreaming (REM sleep). The sleep cycle is repeated several times during the night. Although total sleep time tends to remain constant, older people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep.

Many older adults, though certainly not all, also report being less satisfied with sleep and more tired during the day. Studies on the sleep habits of older Americans show an increase in the time it takes to fall asleep, an overall decline in REM sleep, and an increase in sleep fragmentation (waking up during the night) with age.

Research suggests that much of the sleep disturbance among older persons can be attributed to physical and psychiatric illnesses and the medications used to treat them. However, there are other types of sleep disorders that are more prevalent in older age:

•Insomnia - is fairly common in older age, and according to the National Sleep Foundation's 2003 Sleep in America poll, 44% of older persons experience one or more of the nighttime symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights per week or more.

•Snoring - is the primary cause of sleep disruption for approximately 90 million American adults; 37 million on a regular basis. Snoring is most commonly associated with persons who are overweight and the condition often becomes worse with age. Loud snoring is particularly serious as it can be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea and is associated with high blood pressure and other health problems.

•Restless legs syndrome (RLS) - is a neurological movement disorder characterized by an irresistible urge to move the limbs. With RLS, unpleasant, tingling, creeping or pulling feelings occur mostly in the legs, become worse in the evening, and make it difficult to sleep through the night. Its prevalence increases with age and about 10% of people in North America and Europe are reported to experience RLS symptoms.

•Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) - is another common cause of sleep problems. The pain also makes it difficult to sleep.

Medical conditions such as diabetes mellitus, renal failure, and respiratory diseases, such as asthma and immune disorders, are all associated with sleep problems and disorders. Diseases such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis also commonly cause problems sleeping. In general, people with poor health or chronic medical conditions have more sleep problems. For example, hypertension affects approximately 5 million Americans and is linked with snoring, sleep apnea, and other disorders.

I was having a terrible time sleeping earlier last year and almost joined a sleep study because of feeling so exhausted all the time. What I realized through doing some research and also talking to my physician about the issue was that I was eating too late and sometimes exercising too late. Neither one of these things is good for us and can affect sleep patterns!

Lack of sleep can affect our enjoyment of daily activities and also can be a threat to our well-being. To name a few concerns, sleeplessness can result in falls, general carelessness that leads to mishaps, and falling asleep at the wheel, so it is important to do all we can to remedy this problem if it occurs on a continuing basis.

For more information, check out the National Sleep Foundation’s website.

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Content copyright © 2015 by Patricia Villani, MPA, PhD. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Patricia Villani, MPA, PhD. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Patricia Villani, MPA, PhD for details.


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