by Erin Blakemore | The Washington Post
When Carol Gee turned 55, she made a new friend: 4 am. In the past, he usually slept through it. But once she entered menopause, she became her new alarm clock. "I would like to go to sleep and wake up every morning at about the same time, almost as if you had set the clock," says Gee, who is now 68 years old.
He is not the only elderly person to have experienced an exasperating shift in sleep cycles. In 2017, a national survey conducted by the University of Michigan found that 46% of adults aged 65 or over have difficulty falling asleep regularly.
When people get older, the body changes in all foreseeable ways. The joints stiffen. Brains can slow down. The wounds take longer to heal. Even sleep patterns change. This can be a novelty for many, says Michael V. Vitiello, a psychologist at the University of Washington who specializes in sleep in aging.
The most obvious changes – and often even more aggravating – are how sleep and waking times change and sleep becomes lighter, often from middle age. The weekend snooze ended at 11 and the possibility of sleeping through a noisy garbage truck in the block.
The most common change is the tendency to get up with (or earlier) birds. The researchers of the circadian rhythm call it "morningness" and have discovered that, not surprisingly, it tends to happen while the time to go to sleep preferred by people early with age. Scientists have documented changes in the circadian rhythms that occur with aging, but are still learning why they occur, says Vitiello.
Even the architecture of sleep – the phases and the depth of sleep – changes with age. Older people take more time to fall asleep and wake up more often. They tend to dwell in the deeper stages of sleep for less time than young adults, and they also get a slower eye sleep. While the exact purpose of REM sleep is not yet clear, it seems to be important for memory and learning. Less restful sleep at night can lead to drowsiness during the day. (As long as naps are not so long as to interfere with falling asleep at night, they are considered part of a normal sleep pattern.)
But not all agitated nights are benevolent. Studies have found that poor sleep may pose a particular threat to the elderly: falls, depression and anxiety, memory problems and increased risk of suicide are among the impacts of sleep problems in this population group that researchers found .
Some sleep disorders – disturbance of the behavior of REM sleep in which people manifest vivid dreams; sleep-wake disturbance of the circadian rhythm, which causes a discrepancy between the desired bedtime and the body's interest in sleeping; and sleep apnea, which causes breathing to stop repeatedly during sleep – have been associated with an increased risk of Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and dementia.
But as with changes in sleep architecture and timing, scientists are still unsure why such risk associations exist. Kristine Yaffe, a neuropsychiatrist from the School of Medicine at the University of San Francisco, specializing in dementia, warns that there are more questions than answers when it comes to dementia and sleep.
"If people have dementia, they tend not to sleep well," she said. "Do sleep problems actually lead to dementia? Sometimes it's hard to get out of it."
In a 2017 study in Sleep magazine, researchers found that people with interrupted sleep had a risk of cognitive impairment and / or Alzheimer's 1.68 times higher than those without sleep disruption. But as the researchers made clear, there was no way to know if sleep disorders are a cause of dementia or just a symptom of dementia.
What is clear is the association between good sleep and psychological well-being in the elderly. A 2010 study documented that association when it came to sleep quality, but the amount of sleep did not show the same effects.
And here, experts say, can be the key to understanding sleep when you grow old. If you're sleeping less, but you do not feel negative effects out of bed, the changes you notice may simply be normal-related ages. If a sudden change in sleep occurs, or insufficient or inadequate sleep interferes with daily life, altering the personality, or your bed partner says you stop breathing when you snore, it could be a sign of something more serious and worth worth visiting your doctor.
Sometimes understanding sleep is just trial and error, however. Florine Salierno, 81, discovered that years of attempting over-the-counter products like melatonin did nothing for her insomnia and she did not like the various drugs prescribed for her. Now, follow the doctor's suggestion to meditate when he can not go back to sleep, which sometimes helps. Salierno may feel annoyed or even depressed by a sleepless night, but above all try not to be disturbed.
Which corresponds to what the researchers say. Our bodies change over the years and it is normal that sleep also changes.
"I consider it a fabric over time", says Vitiello. "Can you do the 100-yard dash or the 100-meter dashboard as fast as you can when you were 18?"
Over time, he says, sleep patterns simply change. "Many older people recognize that they do not sleep as they were when they were 18, but they can still work and they are fine, and all is well with the universe."