Sleep Disorders and Deprivation: Barriers to Senior Health

Bed with pillows and a blanket Eat, drink, and sleep. These are three things that keep us alive and healthy. However, they are also the three things with many disorders that prevent us from getting the most benefit from them. The elderly are especially prone to disorders, particularly eating and sleeping. Sometimes our bodies decide that we can no longer process and digest certain foods or food combinations. There are times when our body doesn’t take to sleep as well as it once did, whether that means difficulty falling asleep, difficulty getting enough sleep, or difficulty getting quality sleep.

Sleep is an extremely important part of our overall health. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLB), “Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you're sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It's forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information.”

The NHLB also points to studies that show adequate sleep improves our ability to learn, whether that is for an academic subject, an instrument, a sport, or any number of everyday activities (driving, decision making, etc.). It also aids, they note, in being creative and paying attention.

Sleep difficulties are common in the elderly, and each has a different root cause.

Sleep Deprivation and Insomnia Increase Dementia Risk

A good night’s sleep is the most important factor in feeling “energetic and clear-headed” the next morning. Good sleep habits have also been found to lower the risk of cognitive impairment in one’s later years. However, the elderly are more likely to have health issues that inhibit a good night’s sleep. In fact, a 2011 study by the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF) that “showed a clear association between sleep-disordered breathing in older women and the risk of cognitive impairment.”

NPR reports, “Those who developed disruptions of their circadian rhythm were also at increased risk. So were those who awoke throughout the night, tossing and turning.”

Sad senior woman sleeping on pillow at home

Seniors under psychological stress are more prone to sleep disorders, and the link between a lack of sound sleep and dementia may be even stronger. In fact, stress itself has been linked to an increased dementia risk; a study in 2010 identified a link between stress in middle-aged women and the later development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Kristine Yaffe, co-author of the UCSF study, advises seniors to get regular screening for sleep problems so that issues can be detected early and treated “before they lead to significant cognitive impairment.”

Now that you know your senior (and you, of course) need a full night of restful sleep, how can you go about ensuring that your senior receives all the Zs he or she needs?

Get Some Sleep has some sleep tips that will do well for anyone, especially seniors, who are having trouble getting a good night’s rest.

Melatonin, a natural hormone that makes you sleepy, is a necessary part of getting a full night of good REM sleep. Should you be lacking or if you just want a very restful night’s sleep, melatonin can be bought as a supplement (consult your doctor to see what dose, if any, is right for you). Other ways to boost your levels naturally are to “use low-wattage bulbs where safe to do so, and turn off the TV and computer at least one hour before bed.”

Helpguide also recommends leaving the backlit devices (such as a tablet or cellular phone) on the charger away from your hands. If you wish to read (which is a great way to make yourself sleepy), use a device such as a soft night light or lamp on a device that requires a secondary light source (such as a non-backlit eReader or a regular ol’ book).

They also say: “Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool, and your bed is comfortable. Noise, light, and heat can cause sleep problems. Try using a sleep mask to help block out light.”

Helpguide also recommends only using your bedroom for the two S words: Sleep and Sex. Don’t work or watch TV in there; your brain will associate it with activities that you do in there.

Caregivers Need Sleep, Too

Have we mentioned that everyone needs a good night’s rest? Caregivers certainly fit under that umbrella. According to a report from the National Alliance for Caregiving, caregivers commonly experience stress and depression, with 87% of the survey responders reporting sleep and energy level deficiencies due to interrupted sleep several times of night and the stress of their job keeping them from having good sleep.

So, elderly caregivers, get some sleep and let your loved one’s caregiver(s) enjoy a good night’s rest. says, “The National Sleep Foundation reports that “sleep problems among caregivers increases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s patients being cared for in an institutional facility,” as well as taking its toll on the health of the caregiver.”

Everyone needs to sleep. Without it, our bodies are more prone to illness, and we are more susceptible to accidents from doing everyday tasks. Seniors, especially, need rest. It is a common misconception that we require less sleep as we grow older; not true. WebMD says, “Contrary to popular opinion, older people don't need less sleep than the average person. In fact, adults require about the same amount of sleep from their 20s into old age, although the number of hours per night varies from person to person.”

So, turn out the lights, curl up with a good book, and let your mind become drowsy. A good night’s sleep is just what the doctor ordered.

Elderly man sleeping on the bed

Aging, Healthy Livinggum2012