Vitality - Healthy Aging NewsletterSpring 2011

How Well Are You Sleeping?

A recent poll of older adults by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) found that the healthier you are, the better you'll sleep. Conversely, the more medical conditions you have, the less likely you are to sleep well.

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 Among the top three culprits were pain, excess weight, and ambulatory restrictions.

"Sleep is as vital to good health as good nutrition, regular exercise, and a positive attitude," says David Lewis, MD, a pulmonary specialist in sleep medicine at Group Health Medical Centers Capitol Hill Campus in Seattle. "One impacts the other."

Still, some changes do occur naturally after age 60. Shifts in hormone and melatonin levels may cause us to take longer to fall asleep, sleep more lightly, and wake more often during the night. We may find ourselves going to bed earlier and rising with the birds. Less sleep might be OK if studies didn't also show that we still require the same six to eight hours a night that we needed in our 20s.

"Lack of sleep is not to be taken lightly," says Dr. Lewis. "It depresses our immune systems, affects our daily activities, increases confusion, affects our mood and concentration, and may lead to falls. If you're not sleeping soundly, see your doctor. The solution may be easier than you think."

Remedies for Sound Sleep

Member Sharon Dolezal suggests daily exercise, cultivating a calm mind, and going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. "I work out in my flower garden, and try not to dwell on negative things," she says.

Members Paul and Rondy Voorhees started using two pillows and sleeping on their sides to stop snoring. "It took a little getting used to," says Paul. "But the head angle puts just enough of a 'crook' in the airway to do the trick."

Simple remedies like these may not always work. For example, snoring may be a symptom of sleep apnea (see sidebar), and poor sleep may be associated with anything from anxiety to heartburn.

Because insomnia is the most common sleep complaint among Americans, many turn to over-the-counter sleep aids such as antihistamines and melatonin. These can help in the short term, but are usually not recommended for long-term therapy, says Dr. Lewis.

"Drugs can actually decrease the quality of your sleep after prolonged, regular use," he says. "Instead, try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, and keep daytime naps to a minimum. Naps are fine as long as you’re sleeping well at night, but are bad habits for those suffering from insomnia."

More Tips

To get a good night's sleep naturally, avoid spicy foods, create a dark, quiet environment to sleep, get outside daily, stay socially active, and walk and exercise early in the day. Before bed, enjoy a warm bath, practice deep breathing or muscle relaxation techniques, listen to soothing music, read, and eat a light carbohydrate snack.

One Group Health member heats her bed with a hair dryer before climbing in. Another warms a rice-filled bag scented with lavender in her microwave.

If you have any worries, jot them down in a journal — and let them go. "I always try to go to bed with a clear mind," says Dolezal. "About an hour before bedtime, I sit quietly and read or do some handwork. This may sound pretty simple, but I sleep very well."

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