Ask Mr. Pedometer and Friends…

Q:  Mr. Pedometer, isn’t it true that older adults need less sleep each night?  I am in my eighth decade and still waiting for this to happen.

A:  That turns out to be a myth!  Older adults still require 7-9 hours of sleep each night, according to Jessica Rundo, M.D., a staff physician at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center.   Older woman sleeping

In an article in Consumer Reports on Health, Dr. Rundo says that sleep cycles change with age, and older adults may awaken more often during the night.

There are health dangers related to insufficient sleep, including increased risks of falls, cognitive decline, and dementia. “Chronic insomnia – difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep at least three nights a week for three months or longer – can also occur with conditions such as anxiety and depression,” the report states.

Here are the tips provided for getting a good night’s sleep, without medication:

  • TURN OFF ELECTRONICS – At least one hour before going to sleep, stop watching TV, reading on your tablet, or checking e-mail. “The blue light from electronics suppresses melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep,” says Beth Malow, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Sleep Division in Nashville.
  • EAT WISELY – Don’t consume a large meal within a couple of hours before bedtime, to avoid heartburn. During the day, choose meals high in fiber and low in saturated fat in order to fall asleep faster and have a better quality sleep (according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Sleep Medicine). “Also, skip the nightcap.  An alcoholic drink might help you doze off initially, but when it wears off, you’ll be awake again,” the article notes.
  • GET IN A DAYTIME WALK – “Exercise boosts the effects of sleep hormones like melatonin, especially if it’s done in bright daylight in the morning,” according to Timothy Morgenthaler, M.D., co-director of the Mayo Clinic for Sleep Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. A 2010 study found that people 55 and older who exercised about four times a week for half an hour found it easier to fall asleep than those who did not exercise.
  • SET YOURSELF UP FOR SLEEP – Thirty to 60 minutes before bedtime, dim the lights, make sure your bedroom is cool, read a good (actual) book, and turn on soothing music (or a white noise machine), suggests Dr. Malow.
  • RETHINK THE REGULAR DAYTIME NAP – If you nap occasionally without affecting your nighttime sleep, that’s okay, but limit the nap to an hour. Otherwise, it can make it more difficult for you to doze off at night, according to Dr. Rundo.

Risks of Taking Sleep Medicines

Taking sleep medicine may be risky, and not particularly effective.  Some prescription sleeping pills have been found to double the risk of falls and hip fractures in older adults. Other studies have linked sleep medicine to poorer cognitive ability and possibly dementia in people 65 or older (according to a 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine).

See your doctor if none of the above strategies works after several weeks.  You may be a candidate for overnight sleep monitoring, to determine if you have obstructive sleep apnea, which is defined as “numerous brief pauses in breathing during sleep” (which can lead to snoring).

Sleep apnea, if untreated, can lead to increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes.  According to the article, “almost 80 percent of the estimated 29 million Americans with obstructive sleep apnea haven’t received a diagnosis.”