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The Elderly and Sleep

Article by Daniel Westhead Daniel Westhead Sure Safe Alarms


Most people know that getting a good night's sleep is important for overall health and well-being. However, many of us assume that older adults need less sleep than their younger counterparts. In fact, the opposite is true. As we age, we actually may need more sleep to function effectively. Unfortunately, many seniors have difficulty sleeping through the night due to medical conditions, medications, and changes in sleep patterns.

While we all tend to get up more in the night as we age, maintaining good sleep patterns becomes more vital in our older years as it helps to maintain physical and mental health, stave off disease, and promote healing and recovery.

What causes sleep problems in the elderly?

There are many factors that can contribute to sleep problems in the elderly. Age-related changes in the body can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Medications can also interfere with sleep, as can underlying health conditions.

Poor sleep habits can also play a role, such as sleeping during the day or watching television late into the evening. In some cases, sleep problems may be caused by a change in lifestyles, such as retirement or caregiving responsibilities.

However, there are many ways to manage sleep issues and improve sleep quality. Taking steps to relax before bedtime, establishing a regular sleep schedule, and creating a comfortable sleep environment can all help elderly adults get the rest they need.

Dementia and sleep

Dementia can cause a range of sleep problems, from difficulty falling asleep to waking up often during the night. People with dementia may also have trouble staying asleep for long periods of time. In some cases, they may also nap during the day.

There are several reasons why dementia can contribute to sleep disturbance.

The disease can disrupt the body's natural sleep-wake cycle. Many specialists believe that as dementia changes the brain cells, it can also affect what are known as circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, running in the background to carry out essential functions and processes. One of the most important and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle. When this is thrown out of synch, it can disrupt sleep patterns, meaning that the person may have problems falling asleep, wake during the night or falling asleep during the day.

Dementia can also cause changes in a person's mood and behaviour, which can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep. This is because people with dementia may experience a range of emotions, from agitation and anxiety to depression and apathy. These changes in mood can make it hard to relax, which in turn, can make dropping off more difficult.

Additionally, some medications used to treat dementia can cause side effects that interfere with sleep. For example, certain antipsychotic medications can cause drowsiness during the day, which can then make it harder to sleep at night. In addition, many of the medications used to treat dementia can have side effects that worsen at night, such as increased confusion or agitation.

Dementia and sundowning

Many people with dementia experience something called "sundowning." This is when a person becomes confused and agitated in the late afternoon or evening. This can make it hard for them to sleep at night.

There are a few theories about why sundowning occurs. One theory is that it' caused by changes in lighting. As the sun goes down, the levels of light change which can trigger confusion and agitation. Another theory is that sundowning is caused by changes in circadian rhythms. As we get older, our circadian rhythms can become less regular, and this can cause sleep problems.

There are a few things you can do to help reduce sundowning. First, try to keep a regular schedule for your loved one. This means going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Second, make sure the environment is well-lit in the evening and that there are no dark corners or shadows. Third, try to limit noise in the evening and create a calm environment. Finally, provide your loved one with a security item such as a favourite blanket or stuffed animal.

Sleep apnoea in older people

Sleep apnoea is a condition that causes people to stop breathing for short periods of time during sleep. It can cause snoring, gasping, and choking sounds. Sleep apnoea can also lead to daytime fatigue and sleepiness.

There are two main types of sleep apnoea:

1) Obstructive sleep apnoea, which is when the airway becomes blocked

2) Central sleep apnoea, which is when the brain doesn't send signals to the muscles that control breathing

Sleep apnoea is more common in older adults. It's also more common in people who are overweight or have a family history of sleep apnoea.

Sleep apnoea can be treated with lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or sleeping on your side. In some cases, it may also require the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.

How to improve sleep quality

While there are medications that can help with sleep, often the first port of call is to make some lifestyle adaptations which may help.

Some common things that you can do if you're struggling include:

Creating a bedtime routine

Establishing a bedtime routine can be very helpful in achieving a good night's sleep. This might involve taking a relaxing bath, reading a book or listening to soothing music. It's important to do the same thing every night so that your body knows it's time to wind down and prepare for sleep.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime

What you eat and drink before bed can have a big impact on the quality of your sleep. Caffeine and alcohol are two substances that can disrupt sleep, so it's best to avoid them in the evening. Caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you awake and make it difficult to fall asleep. And while alcohol may make you feel drowsy at first, it actually interferes with deep sleep later in the night. It's also wise to avoid eating a heavy meal late at night.

Exercise and sleep

Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your sleep. Exercise helps to regulate the body's natural sleep-wake cycle. It also helps to reduce stress and anxiety, which can make it easier to fall asleep. Just be sure to avoid exercising too close to bedtime, as this can actually have the opposite effect. For some inspiration, take a look at our blogs on exercise for the elderly.

Keep the bedroom comfortable

The environment in which you sleep can have a big impact on the quality of your sleep. The bedroom should be cool, dark and quiet. If you find it difficult to sleep in complete darkness, try using an eye mask or blackout curtains. Earplugs can also be helpful if you're sensitive to noise.

Manage stress

Stress is a common cause of sleep problems. If you're struggling to sleep, it's important to find ways to manage stress and anxiety. Some helpful coping mechanisms include yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises. You might also want to try journaling or talking to a therapist.

Limit screen time before bed

The blue light emitted by screens can disrupt the body's natural sleep-wake cycle. To avoid this, it's best to limit screen time in the evening and avoid using devices close to bedtime. If you must use a device at night, try dimming the screen or using blue light-blocking glasses.

When to see your GP about sleep problems

If you're struggling to sleep, it's a good idea to talk to your GP. They can help identify any underlying causes and offer guidance on treatment options. If lifestyle changes and home remedies don't help, they may also recommend medication or other therapies.

Here at SureSafe we provide a range of personal alarms that are designed to help the elderly to maintain their independence for longer. Get in touch with us on 0800 112 3201 and speak to one of our team for further information.

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