Waking throughout the night isn’t a problem reserved for the very young. As we age, night-waking resurfaces. “It’s actually considered normal to wake up four to five times a night once a person reaches age 65 or 70,” says Frank S. Coletta, MD, a specialist in geriatric pulmonary medicine and the director of the Center of Sleep Medicine at South Nassau Community Hospital in Oceanside, NY. The reason? The area of the brain that controls sleep ages right along with the rest of the body and therefore doesn’t work as well as it did when we were younger. At the same time, older adults simply don’t require as much sleep as they used to. “Seniors often average six to seven hours instead of the eight hours needed by those under 70,” Dr. Coletta says.
Although night-waking is common, there might be a problem if sleep is interrupted more than five times nightly or if you cannot get back to sleep within 30 minutes of a wake-up.
“Alcohol, caffeine, certain medications, or medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, chronic pain, and prostatism, a bladder problem, can cause these sleep issues in the elderly,” Dr. Coletta says. “Here, treatment would include avoiding alcohol and caffeine, identifying and removing the offending medications, as well as medical treatment of the underlying diseases.”
Another major cause of problematic sleep is dementia. “With senility, a patient loses control of his or her sleep-wake cycles. He or she may sleep during the day and therefore much less at night. This often makes a person more and more sleep-deprived, leading to further inability to maintain proper sleep,” Dr. Coletta says. Medications can sometimes help in these circumstances.
Sleep apnea, the temporary stoppage of breathing during sleep, can also disturb normal sleep patterns. It can cause the level of oxygen in the blood to fall, increased stress on the heart, elevated blood pressure, and poor sleep quality. The symptoms include loud snoring and/or abnormal pattern of snoring with pauses and gasps. Other symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, memory changes, depression, and irritability. See your doctor if you have these symptoms.
No matter one’s age or reason for sleep issues, good sleep habits are a must. “It’s important to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, engage in something relaxing prior to bedtime, avoid watching TV or looking at the computer in bed, exercise daily, and maintain a sleep-inviting environment, such as a dark bedroom.”