SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Good sleep is vital to our well-being

Maureen Wendt

Have you ever had problems sleeping? Along with the other changes that occur as we get older, changes in sleep patterns are part of the aging process.

It is normal, as we age, to have a harder time falling asleep and more trouble staying asleep than when we were younger. Although it is a common belief that we need less sleep as we age, in fact our sleep needs are consistent throughout adulthood. Sleep problems in older people often go untreated because many of us believe the misconception that nothing can be done to help us get better sleep.

Although many problems with sleep can be dealt with through simple changes in routines or in the sleep environment, sometimes a change in behavior is not enough. If you are having a particular problem with sleep that goes on for a period of time, you might want to consult with your health care team.

These tips may help you get a better night's sleep.

Improve your daytime habits

— Be engaged. Social activities, family and work can keep your activity level up and prepare your body for a good night's sleep. If you are retired, try volunteering, getting involved in your senior center, or taking an adult education class.

— Improve your mood. A more positive mood and outlook can reduce sleep problems.

— Find someone you can talk to, preferably face-to-face, about your problems and worries.

— Exercise regularly. Exercise releases endorphins that can boost your mood and reduce stress, depression and anxiety.

— Expose yourself to sunlight. Bright sunlight helps regulate melatonin and your sleep-wake cycles. Keep curtains and shades open during the day, move your favorite chair to a sunny spot or do something similar to try to get at least two hours of sunlight per day.

— Limit caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. All are stimulants and interfere with the quality of your sleep.

Encourage better sleep at night

— Naturally boost your melatonin levels. Artificial lights at night can suppress your body's production of melatonin, the hormones that make you sleepy. Use low wattage bulbs where safe and turn off the TV and computer at least one hour before bed.

— Don't read from a backlit device at night (such as an iPad). If you use a portable electronic device to read, use an e-Reader that is not backlit.

— Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and cool, and your bed is comfortable. Noise, light and heat can cause sleep problem. Try using a sleep mask to block out light.

— Move bedroom clocks out of view. Anxiously watching the minutes tick away when you cannot sleep is a surefire recipe for insomnia. Light emitted from a clock, telephone or other device can also disrupt sleep. Believe it or not, this really works; I keep my bedroom clock permanently turned away from the bed.

— Develop bedtime rituals. A soothing ritual, like taking a bath or playing soft music, will help you wind down. Relaxation and stress management techniques, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, take some practice but their benefits can be substantial.

— Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, even on weekends.

— Block out snoring. Try earplugs, a white noise machine, or separate bedrooms.

If you are having trouble sleeping, pick a couple of the above and try them!

Sleep is essential to our physical health and emotional well-being. For older adults, a good night's sleep is especially important because it helps improve concentration and memory formation, allows your body to repair cell damage that occurred during the day, and refreshes your immune system, which in turn helps to prevent disease.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com .

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