Sleep Eluding Your Senior (& You)? Finding & Correcting the Cause

Sleep and our sleep patterns have become hot topics in the health arena of late.

With the advent of wearable devices that track our movement, sleep, eating and drinking, we seem to be focusing on how much – or little – we sleep as a cause of trouble for us and our seniors.

Many of us, as we get older, seem to find it difficult to stay asleep all night, fall asleep when we get into bed or awaken earlier than desired in the morning.

It’s not uncommon for many of us to wake up several times during the night or are restless while we sleep.

In a National Institute on Aging study of people 65 and older, more than one half of the men and women reported at least one chronic sleep complaint.

Recent Sleep Research Results

A recent research study published in the journal Brain indicated there is a cause for our seniors waking quickly (popping up) in the middle of the night or too early in the morning.

Researchers have found a group of neurons in our brains that act as a ‘sleep switch.’ This neuron group (ventrolateral preoptic nucleus) found in the hypothalamus appears to be prone to degeneration with age, meaning the nerves controlling sleep begin malfunctioning.

Those researchers also believe that the degeneration of the neurons also causes insomnia that is characteristic of nighttime wandering in people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The result of this new research could be improved sleep for ailing seniors, with the ability to better target their disorder with medications that can have fewer side effects than those currently being used. A newer, more specific sleeping aid is under development.

At this time, sleeping aids given to seniors result in instability, balance difficulty and falls as it affects receptors in not only the hypothalamus but also the cerebellum where balance is controlled.

Researchers found a specific neurotransmitter called galanin. They feel we lose half of these nerve cells with galanin between young adulthood and our older years. The fewer the nerve cells, the more trouble with sleeping we experience.

Most eye-opening to us, those with the smallest number of nerve cells had Alzheimer’s disease.

Importance of Sleep for Seniors

We all know how we feel when we have not slept well or slept for fewer hours than we need. It makes it hard to focus on the activities of living that we need to complete, including our jobs, caregiving, or our own safety.

It is the same for our senior loved ones.

Not sleeping well or long enough can put our seniors at risk for falls, injuries and behavior issues that can put them at risk.

Researchers in the study outlined above state:

“Sleep loss and sleep fragmentation is associated with a number of health issues, including cognitive dysfunction, increased blood pressure and vascular disease, and a tendency to develop type 2 diabetes. It now appears that loss of these neurons may be contributing to these various disorders as people age.”

Many people have come to believe that seniors don’t need as much sleep as they age. That is just not the truth, according to research results. Older adults need the same number of hours of sleep as they did when they were younger.

There are many reasons older adults don’t sleep as well.

  • Arthritis pain
  • Frequent urination
  • Sleep apnea
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Medications
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Excessive napping
  • Insomnia
  • Medical diseases

Correcting Sleep Disturbances

Because so many seniors have difficulty sleeping, and that difficulty can affect their health and well-being, it is important to look for the root cause(s) of the sleep problem and then correct it.

Here are some suggestions to help your senior loved ones improve their sleep pattern.

  1. Visit your senior’s doctor to be sure you are doing all you can to relieve medical concerns, such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea.
  2. Set a bedtime routine. Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time.
  3. Get outside during the day to get enough exposure to sunlight.
  4. Don’t drink too many fluids close to bedtime, forcing your senior to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Avoid caffeine containing products late in the day as well.
  5. Get moving during the day. Staying physically active, expending energy to be ready for sleep.
  6. If taking a nap, be sure it is short enough to allow for sleep at night. Napping in the late afternoon could upset your senior’s ability to fall asleep at bedtime.
  7. Use a natural sleep aid such as melatonin if your senior’s doctor approves.
  8. Try lavender in their pillow or in a warm bath at night.
  9. Keep your senior’s bedroom an atmosphere of good sleep, with darkness, calm, and quiet surroundings.
  10. Be sure the mattress is comfortable and doesn’t compound the sleep problem.

Seniors can experience not only inadequate hours of sleep, they can also have numerous restless periods, inability to get into a deep sleep, difficulty falling asleep and wakening too early.

Sleep Important for Family Caregivers, Too

Sometimes lack of sleep by your senior loved one can also keep you, as their caregiver, up at night as well. They may be making noise that wakes you up. You may be sleeping with ‘one eye open’ waiting for them to wander. You may be worried that they will fall. You may be afraid of them staying awake at night and sleeping during the day when you have planned activities or appointments.

Regardless of the specific reason, their poor sleep could be negatively affecting your health as well.

Many seniors get placed in long term care facilities when their caregivers can no longer handle poor sleep patterns in their seniors, falling in the night and behaviors induced by sleep deprivation.

Taking some time to correct sleep disturbances will help not only the quality of your senior’s life but yours as a caregiver as well – – addressing the long term interest of both of you.