We all look forward to a good night's sleep. Sleep allows our body to rest and to restore its energy levels. Without enough restful sleep, not only can we become grumpy and irritable, but also inattentive and more prone to accidents. Like food and water, adequate sleep is essential to good health and quality of life.

There are two types of sleep:

  • Non-rapid eye movement, or NREM sleep
  • Rapid eye movement, or REM sleep

NREM sleep includes four stages, ranging from light to deep sleep. We cycle through these four stages of sleep approximately every 90 minutes. Then we go into REM sleep, the most active stage of sleep when dreaming often occurs. During REM sleep, the eyes move back and forth beneath the eyelids and muscles become immobile.

Researchers believe that two body systems -- the sleep-wake process and our circadian biologic clock -- regulate our sleep. They program our bodies to feel sleepy at night and awake during the day.

The sleep-wake process works by balancing the amount of sleep a person needs based on the time spent awake. Our circadian biologic clock is a 24-hour body rhythm affected by sunlight. It regulates hormones such as melatonin, which is secreted during the night and promotes sleep, and other processes like body temperature. Sleeping at a time that is in sync with this rhythm is important for healthy sleep.

Sleep needs change over a person's lifetime. Children and adolescents need more sleep than adults. Interestingly, older adults need about the same amount of sleep as younger adults -- seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

Unfortunately, many older adults often get less sleep than they need. One reason is that they often have more trouble falling asleep. A study of adults over 65 found that 13 percent of men and 36 percent of women take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.

Also, older people often sleep less deeply and wake up more often throughout the night, which may be why they may nap more often during the daytime. Nighttime sleep schedules may change with age, too. Many older adults tend to get sleepier earlier in the evening and awaken earlier in the morning.

There are many possible explanations for these changes. Older adults may produce and secrete less melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep. They may also be more sensitive to -- and may awaken because of -- changes in their environment, such as noise.

Importance of Sleep for Elderly

Older adults may also have other medical and psychiatric problems that can affect their nighttime sleep. Researchers have noted that people without major medical or psychiatric illnesses report better sleep.

Not sleeping well can lead to a number of problems. Older adults who have poor nighttime sleep are more likely to have a depressed mood, attention and memory problems, excessive daytime sleepiness, more nighttime falls, and use more over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids. Poor sleep is also associated with a poorer quality of life.

Many people believe that poor sleep is a normal part of aging, but it is not. In fact, many healthy older adults report few or no sleep problems. Sleep patterns change as we age, but disturbed sleep and waking up tired every day are not part of normal aging. If you are having trouble sleeping, see your doctor or a sleep specialist. There are treatments that can help.

Tips to Help a Senior Sleep

A good night's sleep can make a big difference in how your elderly parent feels during the day.

  • Follow a regular schedule. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, even on weekends. Sticking to a regular bedtime and wake time schedule helps keep you in sync with your body's circadian clock, a 24-hour internal rhythm affected by sunlight.
  • Try not to nap too much during the day -- you might be less sleepy at night.
  • Try to exercise at regular times each day. Exercising regularly improves the quality of your nighttime sleep and helps you sleep more soundly. Try to finish your workout at least three hours before bedtime.
  • Try to get some natural light in the afternoon each day.
  • Be careful about what you eat. Don't drink beverages with caffeine late in the day. Caffeine is a stimulant and can keep you awake. Also, if you like a snack before bed, a warm beverage and a few crackers may help.
  • Don't drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes to help you sleep. Even small amounts of alcohol can make it harder to stay asleep. Smoking is dangerous for many reasons, including the hazard of falling asleep with a lit cigarette. Also, the nicotine in cigarettes is a stimulant.
  • Create a safe and comfortable place to sleep. Make sure there are locks on all doors and smoke alarms on each floor. A lamp that's easy to turn on and a phone by your bed may be helpful. The room should be dark, well ventilated, and as quiet as possible.
  • Develop a bedtime routine. Do the same things each night to tell your body that it's time to wind down. Some people watch the evening news, read a book, or soak in a warm bath.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleeping. After turning off the light, give yourself about 15 minutes to fall asleep. If you are still awake and not drowsy, get out of bed. When you get sleepy, go back to bed.
  • Try not to worry about your sleep. Some people find that playing mental games is helpful. For example, think black -- a black cat on a black velvet pillow on a black corduroy sofa, etc. Or, tell yourself it's five minutes before you have to get up and you're just trying to get a few extra winks.
  • If you are so tired during the day that you cannot function normally and if this lasts for more than 2 to 3 weeks, you should see your family doctor or a sleep disorders specialist.

The National Institutes of Health (www.nih.org), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting medical research. NIH annually invests over $28 billion in medical research.

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