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How Sleep Affects Your Everyday Performance

The more candles on your birthday cake, the more likely you are to struggle with sleep.

You might have always imagined retirement as the time in your life where you finally get to sit back and enjoy life—and get enough sleep! The reality, however, is that sleep changes as you get older, and not always for the better. In fact, as many as 40 percent of older adults are plagued with sleep problems. Even healthy individuals often take longer to fall asleep, sleep more lightly, wake up more often, spend less time in deep sleep, and may even sleep about a half hour less overall. So much for catching up on all those years when you couldn’t seem to get enough shut-eye! Even though sleep changes with age, that doesn’t mean that you have to settle for tossing and turning. Below, check out some of the most common nighttime challenges for the elderly, and what you can do (when you get to that age!) to sleep more soundly.

The Problem: Medications are keeping you up.

What You Can Do: Common drugsfor high blood pressure, glaucoma, Parkinson’s, and depression can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. And, frustratingly, if medications are keeping you up, that lack of sleep can often aggravate the exact conditions that are causing you to take them in the first place. Talk to your doctor about tweaking your dosage, or even trying a different drug. Don’t be too quick to turn to sleeping pills, however, since they can be habit-forming and can have negative side effects or interactions with other meds, especially among older people.

The Problem: You don’t take meds but still can’t fall asleep at night.

What You Can Do: Try improving your “sleep hygiene,” or everyday habits that improve your slumber. That means:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at about the same time every day.
  • Don’t take naps.
  • Exercise regularly (shoot for 30 minutes most days of the week).
  • During the day, spend time outdoors or near windows that let in plenty of natural light.
  • Don’t overdo coffee and alcohol, especially in the evening, as both can stimulate your body (and make you urinate).
  • If you’re not asleep after 15 minutes, get out of bed and read, knit, or do another type of calming activity.

The Problem: You’re exhausted during the day no matter how long you’ve slept.

What You Can Do: Ask your doctor if you could have a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea (where you stop breathing for brief periods during the night), restless leg syndrome, or periodic limb movements during sleep which can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. To find out, he or she will likely do a full medical examination, as well as speak to your spouse or bed partner about your sleep habits. You might even be asked to spend a night in a sleep lab where a technician will follow your breathing and brain activity in order to see whether you have a sleep disorder. While about half of elderly people who go to a doctor with sleep complaints end up with a medication, your doctor may also suggest alternatives like weight loss, sleeping on your back, or a mouthpiece.

Also, keep in mind that your bedroom needs may change as you get older. If you’ve gained weight, you might overheat more easily, so you may need to turn the room temperature lower (more toward 60 degrees) or turn on a fan. If the opposite is true and you’ve lost weight, you might get too chilly during the night, so you may need to turn the room temperature higher (closer to 67 degrees) or use an extra blanket. And if you’ve developed hearing loss, consider using a louder alarm clock or one that shakes so you’ll feel its vibrations.