Getting a good night’s sleep is important for your overall health and your mood at any age. However, it can be particularly important in older adults. With National Sleep Awareness Week this month, now is a particularly good time to discuss your sleep (or lack thereof).

Sleep problems in older adults are not uncommon. While the amount of sleep recommended for an older adult is the same – seven to nine hours each night – sleep can often be less deep and choppier than for those who are younger. Common problems include:

  • having trouble falling asleep
  • waking up frequently in the night or early morning
  • getting less quality sleep.

Primary sleep disorders can be:

  • insomnia, or difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or restless sleep
  • sleep apnea, or brief interruptions in breathing during sleep often marked by heavy snoring
  • restless leg syndrome, or the overwhelming need to move your legs during sleep
  • circadian rhythm sleep disorders, or a disrupted sleep-wake cycle

Conditions like depression, anxiety, and dementia can increase the risk for sleep disorders, especially insomnia. Certain existing health conditions, including cognitive, neurological, gastrointestinal, respiratory and urologic issues, as well as various medications (for high blood pressure, COPD, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiac disease, GI problems) can also affect a good night’s sleep.

If you’re having a sleeping problem, it’s a good idea to talk to your physician. If he or she suspects a sleep disorder, a sleep study might be recommended. During such a study, sensors will monitor your body movement, breathing, snoring, heart rate, and brain activity.

Typically, for older adults, non-pharmaceutical treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy constitute the first wave of treatment, since many are already taking multiple medications. This might include having you learn to develop good sleeping habits by:

  • going to bed and waking up at the same time each day
  • using the bed only for sleep and sex, not other activities like work or watching TV
  • doing quiet activities, like reading, before bed
  • avoiding bright lights before bed
  • limiting liquid before bed and avoiding caffeine and alcohol
  • keeping a soothing and comfortable bedroom environment
  • avoiding naps
  • eating three to four hours before bedtime
  • exercising regularly, but not right before bedtime
  • taking a warm bath to relax

Other treatments may include the use of melatonin, a synthetic hormone that induces sleep faster and restores the sleep-wake cycle. On a short term basis, sleeping medications that may help ease the symptoms of the sleep disorder may also be recommended. This, however, needs to be monitored closely, as sleeping pills can increase the risk of falls and can become habit forming. Most importantly, if you think you have a sleep problem, don’t wait until the problem starts to affect your health. Get help.