Aging Well: Help available for sleep struggles

Tips for good sleep

• Establish a regular schedule with consistent bed and wake times.

• Maintain a relaxing bedtime routine.

• Create a sleep-promoting environment that is comfortable, quiet, dark and preferably cool.

• Limit fluids, and don’t eat too much close to bedtime.

• Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol too close to bedtime and even after lunch.

• Exercise, but not within three hours before bedtime.

• Limit naps.

• If problems persist, see your doctor.

Source: National Sleep Foundation

It’s easy to take sleep for granted — that is, until zzzzz’s are replaced with restlessness, tossing and turning and daytime exhaustion.

Although the occasional poor night’s sleep is inconvenient, chronic sleep disruption can significantly affect a person’s quality of life, making it difficult for them to concentrate and cope with stress, increasing their risk of accidents and illness and exacerbating underlying health conditions.

People of all ages experience insomnia, snoring, restless leg syndrome and other sleep problems, but these disorders tend to be more prevalent among older adults.

Although researchers still are learning about the complicated nuances of sleep, advances have helped them better understand sleep changes and their links to overall health.

“I really don’t think we treated (sleep disorders) well or diagnosed them well 15 to 20 years ago,” said William Moore, director of respiratory care and a licensed respiratory therapist at Yampa Valley Medical Center. “The science of sleep is still emerging, and we are still learning how important it is.”

Moore manages the hospital’s Sleep Study Center, which measures various factors during sleep, such as a person’s oxygen intake, brain waves and leg and eye movements, to help diagnose sleep problems related to snoring, sleep apnea and other symptoms.

Not all sleep problems require a trip to the sleep lab. Issues contributing to or causing sleep disturbance often are pinpointed in a person’s sleep diary, a personal record of their sleep patterns and health habits, Moore said.

Just as there are multiple ways of diagnosing sleep problems, there are different ways to treat sleep problems, including behavior modification, therapy and medications.

In some cases, treating a sleep disorder treats underlying health conditions, and vice versa.

A person should first visit their physician who, based on signs and symptoms, can diagnose and treat the sleep problems or related health condition, or refer the person to a sleep lab and/or specialists.

“It’s a complicated pathway sometimes,” Moore said.

Continuous, restful sleep becomes more difficult as we age. Older adults often complain they have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep. They also tend to get sleepy earlier and wake earlier than younger adults.

Research indicates these changes are the result of shifting sleep patterns and rhythms and can contribute to sleep problems.

Insomnia, the most common of sleep problems, affects nearly half of all older adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Individuals who regularly have difficulty falling asleep, wake frequently, wake too early and can’t fall back to sleep or wake unrefreshed should talk to their doctor.

Sometimes a person can relieve insomnia by adjusting medications or sleep and lifestyle habits such as napping, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol use or improving bedtime routines and using relaxation techniques.

Anti-anxiety medications or hypnotics — which help induce and maintain sleep — also may be used to treat serious insomnia.

Chronic illnesses also are linked to sleep disturbances among older adults.

Loud snoring — abnormal breathing caused by partial blockage of the airway — can be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea, in which breathing stops and the amount of oxygen in the blood drops.

In addition to disrupting sleep, this disorder can signal high blood pressure, heart disease, heart failure and other health problems.

Sleep apnea is serious but treatable. Individuals who often snore loudly, wake up with headaches or have been told they stop breathing or gasp for air during sleep should see their doctor. People who are obese or have a large neck size are at higher risk for the disorder.

Other conditions that increase with age and are associated with sleep problems include stroke, menopause, cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, cognitive disorders, depression and arthritis.

This article includes information from the National Sleep Foundation, www.sleepfoundation.org.

— Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tmanzanares@nwcovna.org. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information, visit www.agingwelltoday.com or call 871-7676.

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