Sleep problems have many causes | Aging Matters | April

This month’s topic is the fruit of recent conversations with friends and colleagues about why we frequently don’t sleep well.

We generally agreed that sleep problems increased once we turned 50, so the link between sleep and aging seemed to warrant more research.

As with so many apparently age-related issues, there’s more to the sleep problems story than advancing age.

Among contributors to chronic sleep problems are being overweight or obese; taking in caffeine or alcohol, which can both cause interruptions in sleep; watching television just before bed; and having another, primary health problem, such as osteoarthritis or coronary artery disease. There are several principal sleep disorders. Sleep apnea is partial or complete blocking of the upper airway, so that regular breathing is interrupted, causing you to wake up. If you snore you may be experiencing sleep apnea. Drinking alcohol can contribute to snoring, because alcohol relaxes the throat muscles.

Snoring is “not benign,” as stated in the International Longevity Center report on Sleep, Health, and Aging. If sleep apnea is causing your snoring, you should know that sleep apnea can contribute to high blood pressure and heart problems, as well as depression.

Insomnia means the feeling of having had insufficient or non-restorative sleep. It can be temporary or transient, such as is brought on by jet lag — or the switch to Daylight Savings Time. In older people, transient insomnia can be related to bereavement or a new medical challenge, a stressful event, or drinking too much coffee.

Chronic insomnia can be secondary to an illness — one that is associated with pain, for example. It is very commonly associated with menopause, with no very good remedies reported. Restless leg syndrome is another condition often associated with aging that is implicated in insomnia. Insomnia is also a side effect of many medications.

Or chronic insomnia can be a primary condition that is not associated with other factors. In general, complaints of insomnia do increase with age, but studies over time have suggested these complaints are secondary — more associated with other factors such as another health problem, rather than with age itself.

Nevertheless, chronic insomnia can have a negative effect on cognitive and physical functions, such as balance, and therefore impair an older person’s quality of life.

What can you do about sleep problems? If you’re experiencing sleeplessness, try reducing or cutting out alcohol and caffeine, and introducing calming rituals at bedtime, such as a quiet time for reading or keeping a journal.

If sleep problems persist, you might be well advised to see a health care professional. Medications are commonly prescribed, including hypnotics and melatonin, a hormone found naturally in the body that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles.

Hypnotic drugs are thought to be ineffective for chronic insomnia, however. But as with so many other aging matters, getting your problem diagnosed should be the first step, and exercise can be beneficial.