Sleep is very important for general health and well-being. In sufficient quantity it supports our mental health, physical health and our quality of life in general. The topic of enough sleep is particularly important for older adults, as they often suffer from sleep disorders.
How we sleep
During sleep there are 4 different stages of sleeping. Stage one is really light sleep with a little reduced brain activity compared to being awake. Into the next stage; stage 2, our body is getting calm, the muscles start relaxing and the heart rate is reducing. Stages 3 and 4 are called slow-wave sleep or deep sleep. During this stages we have the deepest sleep of all stages and our body recovers and can regenerate itself. As last stage follows the REM-stage. REM means rapid eye movement. Here the brain activity is highest and we dream. Also our heart rate is increasing again. Especially noticeable for the REM-stage are fast movements of the eyes, hence the name.
This order of stages is repeating several times during the night and is the so called circadian phase.
How our sleep changes during aging
During aging the total amount of sleep decreases. In general the circadian phase changes, older people often tend go to bed early and rise early. The time of slow wave sleep and the REM stage are decreasing, and the amount of waking up from sleep is increasing. The result of worser sleep is often day napping, which is really common amongst older people.
Furthermore older people are usually more susceptible to other types of sleep disorders, often due to pre-existing conditions.
Most common sleep disorders
There are many different sleep disorders, the consequences are often the same: sleep deprivation and uncomfortable feeling. But the circumstances that lead to the consequences are often very different. Here are the most common sleep-disorders:
People with insomnia have general difficulties in falling or staying asleep. Often they spend hours lying in bed and trying to fall asleep. They also tend to wake up too early in the morning. That leads to sleep deprivation.
People with sleep apnea have pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing during sleep. These symptoms can wake them up or even make it hard to fall asleep, which leads to sleep deprivation.
#Restless leg syndrome
People with restless leg syndrome have an unpleasant feeling in their legs or arms that causes a strong urge to move them. Because of moving while lying in bed they have problems falling asleep, which leads to sleep deprivation.
#Circadian rhythm sleep disorders
People with circadian rhythm sleep disorders are unable to go to bed at set times. They can only fall asleep on times dictated by their “body clock“. The quality of sleep is usually normal, only required wake-up times, such as going to school or work, can lead to sleep deprivation.
Risks of sleep deprivation
Lack of sleep can cause several diseases and increase health risks. For example increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. But Lack of sleep can also lead to obesity. A study of teenagers revealed with each hour of sleep lost, the chance to becoming obese increased. The strength of your Immune system also depends on your amount of sleep, without enough sleep your body can have troubles fending off viruses and bacteria. Also micro sleep is a dangerous result of sleep deprivation. People tend to fall asleep during the day for really short times. For example while driving a car this can be really dangerous and can harm yourself as well as others.
What to do if you suffer from sleep disorders?
The first thing to do is see your doctor. If he recognizes a sleep disorder as a possible illness, he will recommend a sleep study in a sleep laboratory. There they can find out exactly what the symptoms of the sleep disorder and their causes are. In the end they can work out a treatment based on the circumstances. This can be both non-pharmaceutical, like cognitive behavioral therapy, or pharmaceutical, like the use of synthetic hormones to help the body falling asleep.
However, the most important thing is not to ignore any symptoms and to seek medical advice even if you just suspect a sleep disorder.