One of the most baffling changes that accompanies aging is the alteration of sleep patterns. Dr. Sonja Ancoli-Israel researches our sleepy brains and notes that sleep habits are directly related to our age.
When we become sleepy our core body temperature drops. This is true for all ages and begins at or before birth. In our teen years, the core body temp drops later in the evening, around 11 p.m. or so. But as we age that changes and we begin to get drowsy earlier and earlier. We wake when our core body temperature rises.
For older people that may be 5 a.m. Sleeping from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. is normal for many aging people. Regardless of age, we need about 8 hours of sleep each night but the hours that sleep takes place may have shifted.
We are influenced by a circadian rhythm, which is linked to sunlight. Darkness prompts our brains to produce melatonin, which regenerates brain functions during our sleep. This is why keeping lights on all the time is one form of sleep deprivation torture. Bright light inhibits the production of melantonin and triggers us to wake up. For light to be effective it must be light that comes in contact with our eyes. So waking up at night and looking at the illumination of a clock will trigger us to be wide awake suddenly. But getting up to go to the bathroom in the darkness doesn’t prompt us to be entirely awake. One way to avoid a wide awake syndrome at night is to turn a clock around so you can’t see any light at all.
Our deep sleep, REM or rapid eye movement, decreases over time and this may be why many of us complain of sleep problems. But it may not be aging that causes sleep disorders, because our brains will accommodate changes. In our aging bodies it’s often a pain level or a medication or a change in routine that deprives us of REM sleep.
In REM sleep we are paralyzed with only our breathing and eye movement working. The reason why our muscles are paralyzed is to prevent us from acting out our dreams. It’s a safety measure from our evolution, although there are some disorders where paralysis does not occur. REM sleep is restorative and the stage of sleep when dreams are created.
You can reset your circadian rhythm by walking in the waning hours of sunlight without dark glasses. You want all the sunlight possible at the same time each night to reset your internal clock. Eventually your body will correspond to the last rays of the sun and become drowsy at the same time each night.
A serious and common sleep disorder is sleep apnea. It’s most common in overweight, middle aged men. These men are heavy snorers who often sleep on their backs. The airway is obstructed and the body is in the throes of waking up over and over to gasp for air. The treatment is a device that is worn at night, which forces air through the airways. If sleep apnea occurs only when sleeping on your back, sewing a pocket in the back of a t-shirt and putting a tennis ball in it will prevent you from being able to sleep on your back
Most psychiatrists do not recommend the old long term hypnotic drugs once associated with insomnia. There are newer short term hypnotic drugs that you see advertised on TV but they are very specific to a particular disorder. Like all medications, it’s important to know if they are right for you. Dr. Ancoli-Israel works with her patients for a long time before she prescribes any medications; she claims that behavior change can be as effective as many medications.
Dr. Sonja Ancoli-Israel at the Stein Institute, University of California at San Diego, www.sira.ucsd.edu