An old wives' tale holds that old people require less sleep. Not true. With the exception of a tiny minority, people of all ages need between seven and eight hours of sleep a day. And poor sleep is not an inevitable part of growing old, as some believe.
“Age in itself is not a predictor of insomnia,” writes Dr. Robert Butler in his book, The Longevity Prescription, “and when it occurs, it is precipitated by other factors, many of which can be changed or compensated for.”
What is associated with insomnia (the catch-all word for a variety of sleep problems) in elders, however, is a range of diseases and conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, depression, lung disease, heart disease, pain and certain medications. Since these afflict elders in larger numbers than the young, more of them may have trouble sleeping and half of all people older than 65 experience sleep problems.
Too little sleep can be devastating, resulting in:
• memory lapses
• deterioration of mental and physical skills
• slowed reaction time
• inability to concentrate
• difficulty carrying out daily tasks
• increased risk of falling
It can pretty much ruin your life. A good night's sleep, says Dr. Butler,
“...is one that leaves you feeling well rested and able to function at your best throughout the day. It does not have to be any more complicated than that.”
A simple definition, but for many it is hard to come by. You probably know most of Dr. Butler's suggestions for overcoming insomnia that is not disease- or medication-related - all worth being reminded of. A few:
- Slow your pace in the hours before bedtime
- Make a ritual of preparing for bed at the same time every night
- Avoid alcohol which disrupts sleep
- Limit liquid intake in the evening
- Exercise early in the day
- Avoid heavy meals in the evening
- Limit caffeine altogether or after 12 noon
Although it sounds counterintuitive, Dr. Butler recommends a short nap each day, no longer than 30 minutes and not after 3PM. If you simply cannot get to sleep, says Butler, don't fight it.
“If you waken in the night, experience restlessness, and cannot go back to sleep, accept your body's verdict. Read for a time; write in a journal; listen to an all-night classical radion station. When you feel tired again, go back to bed – and to sleep.”
Butler also covers some disorders of sleeping – snoring, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome (RLS). The first can be a warning sign of other serious health problems and you should consult your physician as you should for sleep apnea.
There are treatments. RLS can be relieved with moderate exercise and relaxation techniques at bedtime or, a medication might be the cause. Again, discuss it with your physician.
Butler also covers sleep medications and warns they should be used only in the short terms as they do not address underlying causes of sleeplessness. And never use alcohol when taking them – it can be a deadly combination.
I found the most interesting section of Chapter 3 to be a short overview of what is known about sleep and why we spend a third of lives unconscious. So far, it is mostly guesswork and a lot of unproved theory, says Dr. Butler.
”REM [rapid eye movement] sleep probably is a time when distant but linked memories are processed and stored...REM sleep may also be a time when the brain, like an overloaded computer, reorganizes itself.
“Another working theory has it that the cortex, the outer layer of the brain where we do our thinking, needs complete rest from time to time, and sleep provides it. Dreams probably also play a role in managing stress, regulating mood, and exercising the imagination.
“In contrast, Stage 4 is thought to be restorative, a time when our body conserves energy, the nervous system recuperates, and the brain replenishes itself biochemically. In young people, sleep is a busy time for growth and development. Perhaps the body as a whole also requires a time of energy conservation.”
The bottom line is that for continuing good health, insomnia is not to be ignored. Don't dismiss it. Discuss it with your doctor. And,
- Set yourself up for sleep by changing patterns and habits that interfere with sleep
- Set the scene for sleep by making your bedroom a haven, as escape from the excitement of the world.
Next week, we'll discuss Chapter 4, on stress. You are reading along, aren't you?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, P.J. Davis: God's Love and Math