A good night’s sleep is essential for health but as is the case for many Baby Boomers, other health and lifestyle conditions can impact their ability to sleep throughou
Many people believe more sleep is needed in older age, although this isn’t actually the case. In fact, the need for sleep actually declines the older people get. Over-60s generally need between seven and nine hours of sleep each day, although anywhere between five and nine hours is also appropriate.
Sadly, finding it harder to sleep can be part of the normal ageing process and Boomers generally find it more difficult to doze off at night because their bodies aren’t producing the same levels of melatonin – a hormone that promotes sleep. This means one in three women and one in six men take more than half an hour to fall asleep at night, while they are less likely to fall into a deep sleep.
“Sleep need is pretty steady from age 20 – 64 then drops only a little over 65,” Dr Moira Junge from the Sleep Health Foundation told Starts at 60. “The trouble is it gets harder to get uninterrupted sleep due to toileting, pain and sleep disordered breathing.”
Although finding it difficult to fall asleep at night can cause frustration and anger for Boomers, the good news is sleep can be spread throughout the day. Up to 40 per cent of older Australians nap at least once during the day for around half an hour, while over-80s are known for napping more than an hour at a time.
Melatonin aside, there are a number of sleep problems that plague the Boomer population.
“The most common sleep disorder is insomnia, followed by obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA),” Junge explained.
Insomnia impacts 40 per cent of older people and is usually diagnosed when people find it difficult to fall or stay asleep. It can be difficult to treat, given there are an array of causes including stress, depression, anxiety, chronic pain and other illness. Sleep usually improves when these issues are fixed, however, some asthma and blood pressure medication can also contribute to the problem.
It’s always important to discuss sleep health with a GP or health professional, as specialists or further testing may be needed to treat insomnia. While sleeping pills can be a quick fix, they’re not a long-term solution and won’t work as effectively if taken regularly.
Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) impacts one in four older adults and is caused when there is partial or complete obstruction of the throat during sleep. In people with OSA, breathing stops or is reduced, causing blood oxygen levels to fall. Sleep is interrupted to essentially allow sufferers to breathe again, although these disruptions can occur hundreds of times a night.
Typical symptoms include constant waking or gasping for air during the night, snoring, as well as tossing and turning. Obesity and snoring are major contributing factors and while it’s important to raise concerns with a GP, the best way for a proper diagnosis is to complete an overnight sleep study, where sleep patterns will be analysed by professionals.
Losing weight, reducing alcohol intake and even adjusting the sleep position can improve the condition, although in extreme cases, masks and oral appliances may be needed to control symptoms. Surgery is another option, although it is usually only considered when other measures have failed.
There are a number of other health conditions that can cause pain and hinder sleep health. The most common in the older population include arthritis, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, incontinence, indigestion and heart disease. Those who struggle to breath with conditions such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) can also find it hard to sleep.
Mental health issues can also impact sleep, with depression and anxiety leading causes when it comes to sleep problems. Furthermore, cognitive issues including Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can also lead to restlessness. Managing these problems often leads to better sleep and is always a good starting point when it comes to treatment.
“Firstly, just try self-help, general healthy lifestyle improvements with diet and exercise and prioritising sleep,” Junge said. “If there are no improvements after several weeks then talk to GP and look at possibilities of referral to sleep specialists. Have faith that some sleep issues will settle spontaneously, but breathing-related [issues] won’t settle, it needs medical assessment and advice.”