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Many seniors can only dream of a good night's sleep

Stanford Health Care-ValleyCare shows many arise at 4-5 a.m. 'which can be a problem'

We all know about wrinkles, gray hair and memory issues. But people may be surprised as the years go by to find changes in their sleep patterns.

With aging, many folks begin to have a harder time falling asleep, plus they wake up more often during the night and earlier in the morning, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The amount of actual sleeping may stay the same or be slightly decreased, to 6-1/2 to 7 hours each night, but add in some time spent tossing and turning, and a person might actually spend more time in bed.

Sleep needs don't change as we age but our sleep patterns do, which might result in sleep problems.

Younger people sleep in stages that include deep, dreamless sleep and light sleep. Older people spend less time in a deep, dreamless sleep. They might wake up three or four times each night -- and they are more aware of it than they were at a younger age. Older people also may wake up more often because they need to urinate or due to pain from various ailments or medications.

Forty-four percent of older people in the United States experience insomnia at least a few nights a week, according to a 2003 poll by the National Sleep Foundation.

Insomnia is considered chronic if it lasts longer than a month; it is referred to as acute if it lasts a few days or weeks. If insomnia begins to make someone too tired to function during the day, it is time to consult a physician.

"Some changes in sleep cycles come naturally with age. But if you're having regular trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or if you feel drowsy all day, the cause probably goes beyond getting older," warns Pleasanton's Stanford Health Care-ValleyCare on its website, adding, "There's almost always an underlying cause and a treatment or lifestyle change that can help."

Medical problems that might interfere with sleep include arthritis, depression, heartburn, dementia, lung disease, heart disease, incontinence or osteoporosis. Lack of sleep can eventually cause confusion, depression or increase the chance of traffic accidents.

Snoring is the main cause of sleep disruption for about 37 million American adults on a regular basis, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Loud snoring can be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which the sleeper can actually stop breathing for as long as 10-60 seconds, which makes the amount of oxygen in the blood drop, possibly leading to heart disease and other serious health problems.

Other sleep disorders include restless legs syndrome, periodic limb movements disorder and advanced sleep phase disorder. This last condition is when people get the right amount of sleep but not necessarily at the best times. They may have an overwhelming drive to sleep at 8-9 p.m. and get up around 4-5 a.m., which can be a problem if it limits their interactions with family or friends in the evening hours, or if they force themselves to stay awake, resulting in sleep deprivation.

Delayed sleep phase disorder is when people go to bed late, between 1-6 a.m., and then wake up at 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Older people often experience sleep problems due to lifestyle changes, Stanford Health Care-ValleyCare points out. These changes can be less physical and mental activity, less exposure to sunlight or more frequent naps. Other factors may be the feeling of stress, sadness or anxiety that can come with retirement, losing loved ones, or medical or financial concerns.

Insomnia can take its toll if a sufferer is excessively sleepy during the day and has trouble concentrating. A variety of factors needs to be weighed by a doctor to work with the patient on possible treatments.

"Sleep problems can lead to more than drowsiness. According to the National Sleep Foundation, inadequate rest can lead to reduced energy, difficulty concentrating, a lousy mood, a higher risk for accidents and a lower tolerance for pain," states Stanford Health Care-ValleyCare. "Getting older is no excuse for not sleeping well. If you have sleep problems, talk to your doctor."

Sleep tips

* Go to sleep and get up at the same times every day, and limit daytime napping.

* Try to get out in sunlight every day.

* Exercise at regular times every day.

* Avoid caffeine late in the day.

* Skip the nightcap. Even a small amount of alcohol can make it harder to sleep through the night.

* Create a safe and comfortable sleeping space. A dark, quiet and well-ventilated room is best.

* Establish a routine. Listen to music, read a book, take a bath or do some other relaxing thing just before bed each night.

* Use your bedroom for sleeping. If you're not asleep or drowsy within 15 minutes of turning out the light and getting in bed, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy. Then go back to bed.

* A light bedtime snack may be helpful. Many people find that warm milk increases sleepiness because it contains a natural, sedative-like amino acid.

-- Stanford Health Care-ValleyCare/National Institute on Aging

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