The Dirty Dozen Enemies of Good Sleep

Woman in her 60s using digital tablet in bed with electric lamp shining. She is sitting propped up against the headboard reading an ebook.

She meant to go to sleep an hour ago … but when she finally turns off her tablet computer, chances are she’ll still feel wide awake.

Sometimes when we’re busy and it seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day, we wonder about those eight or so hours that we're sleeping. What a waste of time, we might think! But as modern research solves many of the mysteries of sleep, the findings show that our sleep hours are anything but wasted.

We now know that good quality sleep lowers the risk of dementia, diabetes, obesity, hypertension and even communicable diseases. Sleep is vital for creating and retaining memories. Sleep deprivation makes us irritable and accident-prone—when we don’t sleep well, we’re more likely to have a car crash or suffer a serious fall.

University of California, Berkeley (UCB) researchers even called sleep a “fountain of youth.” Said UCB neuroscientist Matthew Walker, “Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep. We’ve done a good job of extending life span, but a poor job of extending our health span. We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a new pathway for helping remedy that.”

Yet although seniors stand to benefit so much from good quality sleep, they are less likely to sleep well. If a busy schedule is the problem, the solution is to carve out more time to get the recommended eight hours or so. But sometimes, even though we go to bed at a reasonable hour, we have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.

Here are twelve things that might be to blame:

  1. Age. As we grow older, good-quality sleep may elude us. The UCB team explains, “The aging brain has trouble generating the kind of slow brain waves that promote deep curative sleep, as well as the neurochemicals that help us switch stably from sleep to wakefulness.” Some experts say we actually need less sleep when we’re older; if an elder is sleeping less, but isn’t feeling sleepy during the day, it’s likely they’re getting enough sleep at night.
  2. Sleep disorders. A number of sleep problems become more common with age. Talk to your doctor if you or a loved one are experiencing insomnia, frequent waking during the night, or sleep apnea (when a person temporarily stops breathing while sleeping). These disorders can be treated with lifestyle changes, medical devices and in some cases, sleep medications. Which leads to the next problem…
  3. Sleep medications. Although millions of Americans take “sleeping pills,” sleep experts tell us that these products may harm more than they help if we take them for more than a short time. The UCB experts warn, “While the pharmaceutical industry is raking in billions by catering to insomniacs, pills designed to help us doze off are a poor substitute for the natural sleep cycles that the brain needs in order to function well.” Said Prof. Walker, “Don’t be fooled into thinking sedation is real sleep. It’s not.”
  4. Pain and other health problems. Sadly, as we grow older, we’re more likely to live with arthritis, osteoporosis and other chronic conditions that can make it hard to get to sleep and stay asleep. Your doctor might recommend certain sleep postures, a change in your medications and when you take them, and/or treatments to reduce pain. This is so important because poor sleep has been found to increase our sensation of pain—a cycle that’s important to interrupt.
  5. Worrying about our sleep. When we have trouble falling asleep, or we fall asleep only to wake up at 3 a.m., we might toss and turn as the minutes and hours pass—will we ever drift off? It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy! Experts say that especially as we grow older, it’s not unusual to take longer to fall asleep and to wake up during the night. Rather than spending that time fretting, relax. Some people find it’s better to just get up for a while until they feel sleepy again. If the problem persists, report it to your doctor.
  6. Poor sleep environment. If you’re having trouble sleeping, it might be time to give your bedroom a makeover. Too much light? Invest in dark window blinds or light-blocking curtains. Try a sleep mask. Artificial light can disrupt our natural sleep cycle, so consider spending the last hour or so before bedtime in a dim room. Too much noise? A white noise machine or earplugs can help. And invest in a mattress and pillow that give you the right type of support.
  7. A room that’s too warm.  It stands to reason that if it’s too cold, we’ll have trouble sleeping. Extra blankets can solve that—but did you know that a room that is too warm can also keep us awake? Turn the heat down at night, and in the summer, use fans if you don’t have adequate air conditioning. (A fan can also provide extra white noise.)
  8. Alcohol and caffeine. You probably know to avoid coffee later in the day if you’re having trouble sleeping. Yet you might then have a “nightcap” to help you sleep. It’s not really helping. Though alcohol makes us drowsy, the effect wears off after a few hours, often leaving us wide awake in the middle of the night. Even if we sleep all night, alcohol affects the brain patterns that give us good quality sleep, so we won’t feel as well-rested in the morning. Alcohol also over-relaxes us, which worsens sleep apnea.
  9. Frequent urination. Various bladder conditions, which tend to be more common as we grow older, can cause us to get up one or more times at night to go to the bathroom. According to the National Sleep Foundation, getting up just once each night can be OK, but more than that can mean we’ll be groggy the next day. Getting up at night is also a fall risk for seniors. Frequent urination at night (called “nocturia”) should be evaluated by your doctor.
  10. Modern technologies. In our age, for people of every age, this is a big one! For years, experts have cautioned that watching TV or using computers close to bedtime can stimulate our brains to wakefulness. And now, the situation is even worse, as people bring their smartphones or tablet computers to bed with them—double trouble, because what they’re doing may be mentally stimulating, and even more to the point, the artificial light beaming into our eyes can wreak havoc with our sleep cycle. Stop using light-emitting devices at least an hour before bedtime. Read a book instead. Turn the sound down on your phone or turn it off entirely to avoid interruptions.
  11. A partner’s sleep problems. Maybe you are one of those people who can sleep through anything? If you’re not, and your sleep partner tosses and turns and wakes up in the night, this could be affecting your sleep, as well. Discuss the problem with your sleep partner, who might benefit from an evaluation from a sleep specialist. Consider sleeping in another room, at least some of the time.
  12. Caregiving. Family caregivers often report poor quality sleep. Especially if their loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia, they may be forced to get up in the night to see to their loved one’s needs or help them to the toilet. If an elderly loved one lives with you, talk to their doctor about sleep problems. And even if your loved one isn’t wakeful, you may be burning the candle at both ends trying to keep up with your caregiving tasks, your job and maybe carving out a little time for yourself. Get help! You can’t do it alone. Talk to family and friends about helping you. And check out professional home care services, a great way to free up some of your time and provide the peace of mind that will promote good sleep for you far more effectively than counting sheep.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018. Read more about the University of California Berkeley study here.