The Sleep Architecture

senior-sleepingI’m a heavy sleeper. I can sleep through just about anything. In doing so, I sometimes forget that there are many people who struggle to do the same. Our sleep cycles are extremely important for how our bodies function the next day. Think of it as a wind-up toy: sleeping is our body’s way of preparing us for the coming events that will follow.

But as we age our sleep patterns change, and it’s recognized as a part of the normal aging process. We tend to have a harder time falling asleep and more trouble staying asleep than when we were younger. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), it is a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age. In fact, research has demonstrated that our sleep needs remain constant throughout adulthood.

Sleep occurs in multiple stages including dreamless periods of light and deep sleep, and occasional periods of active dreaming (REM sleep). The sleep cycle is repeated several times during the night and, although total sleep time tends to remain constant, older people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep.

The Canadian Sleep Society (CSS) says that the prevalence of some primary sleep disorders such as sleep apnea disorder (pauses in breathing during sleep), periodic leg movement in sleep (repetitive limb movements during sleep that may induce partial or complete awakenings), and restless sleep syndrome (overwhelming urge to move the legs usually caused by uncomfortable or unpleasant sensations in the legs) starts to increase significantly in the middle years of life. The NSF estimates that 35 per cent or more of people aged 65 years and older experience periodic leg movement in sleep. Others have estimated that four per cent of men and two per cent of women over the age of 50 have sleep apnea in addition to experiencing excessive daytime sleepiness.

Other factors that can affect our slumber are the circadian rhythms that coordinate the timing of our bodily functions. For example, the NSF found that “older people tend to become sleepier in the early evening and wake earlier in the morning compared to younger adults. As a result, the sleep rhythm shifts forward so that although seven or eight hours of sleep are still obtained, the individuals will wake up extremely early because they have gone to sleep early.”

The relationship between health and sleep is important. The CSS says, “Older adults with newly identified illnesses are more likely to complain of chronic insomnia within the next few years than are older individuals who do not develop such medical illnesses.” Health concerns such as cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary diseases, chronic pain conditions, and dementia are all associated with morning fatigue and/or daytime sleepiness while also being a cause of poor nocturnal sleep quality.

It’s important to address sleep problems if they become prevalent in your nighttime routine. Your health and body clock will appreciate it!

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