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More Than Half of Elderly Report Sleep Problems

But simple lifestyle changes can improve rest, researcher says

MONDAY, July 31, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- More than half of older Americans have trouble sleeping and accept it as a normal part of aging. But there are steps elderly people can take to improve their sleep, a researcher says.

"Sleep requirements and patterns change throughout life, but sleep problems in the elderly are not a normal part of aging," Dr. Julie Gammack, assistant professor of geriatrics at Saint Louis University, said in a prepared statement.

It's important to attempt to solve sleep problems, which can be a health risk and have a negative effect on quality of life.

"Sleep disturbance in the elderly is associated with decreased memory, impaired concentration and impaired ability to function. It contributes to an increased risk of accidents, falls and chronic fatigue," said Gammack, the author of a review article published in July's American Journal of Medicine.

The first step for elderly people with sleep problems is to keep a diary for a week or two that tracks: usual wake-up and bedtimes; timing and size of meals; amount of exercise; medications; and descriptions of how much and how restful sleep was each night.

This information will help a doctor establish whether a person truly has insomnia.

Before prescribing medications for sleep problems, doctors should recommend certain lifestyle changes, Gammack said.

"A daytime walk with correctly timed daylight exposure is useful for insomnia. Appropriate temperature controls, adequate ventilation, and dark sleep environment may also lead to dramatic improvement in sleep quality," she said.

Here are some other suggestions:

  • Increase exposure to bright light and natural light during the day and early evening.
  • Avoid napping after 2 p.m. and limit yourself to one half-hour nap a day.
  • Check the effect of medications on sleep.
  • Wait until you're sleepy to go to bed.
  • Avoid heavy meals before bedtime. If you're hungry, eat a light snack.
  • Limit liquids in the evening.
  • Keep a regular schedule.
  • Rest and retire at the same time each day.
  • Eat and exercise regularly.
  • Manage stress by discussing worries long before bedtime and by using relaxation techniques.

More information

The National Sleep Foundation has more about sleep and aging.

SOURCE: Saint Louis University, news release, July 24, 2006
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