Senior Living: Sleep Sliding Away
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Ann R. of Fairfied was just on the other side of 50 when she first became aware of her sleep. It happened while she was awake.
“I noticed I was dragging all day. I had no energy, and had to take a nap every single day,” she remembers. “It got so I didn’t want to run errands and I started avoiding people because I was too tired to talk to anyone. It got worse. I found I was eating all the wrong things just for the sugar boost.”
It wasn’t until Ann started snoring (“My husband told me it was getting louder but I didn’t believe it until I started waking myself up during the night”) that she put two and too-little sleep together.
She saw her primary care physician and was tested “for all kinds of things—anemia, low blood sugar, etc.” But when those tests all came back negative, they began to explore the possibility that she might have a sleep disorder. Consequently, she saw a specialist who performed a series of diagnostic tests, including overnight observation in a sleep “lab.”
The findings: Ann is one of some 50 million Americans who suffer from chronic sleep disorders (she was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea). An additional 20 to 30 million adults experience intermittent sleep-related problems. From insomnia and sleep apnea to restless leg syndrome and simple snoring, sleep disorders are more common from midlife on, according to medical experts at the Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Sleep Association.
The medical community here in Connecticut agrees.
“As we age, our sleep gets worse,” according to Dr. Jose Mendez, medical director of The Sleep Disorders Center at Danbury Hospital. “It’s more fragmented, less restorative,” and linked to a variety of health conditions, some of them serious.
“Insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness are common complaints among older patients,” says Dr. Irving Smith, director of the Sleep Center at Sharon Hospital. He says that of the 20 to 25 patients he sees weekly at his hospital, “the majority are over 55 years of age.”
Sleep issues manifest differently as we age.
There’s a commonly held belief that older people can get by on less sleep, but that’s not necessarily true, according to Smith. “Most sleep specialists, myself included, think that the total 24-hour requirement of sleep is the same . . . it’s the distribution of sleep that may vary,” he says. Older people may turn in earlier—and wake up earlier—than younger people. They may sleep more during the day, and awaken more frequently at night. They may have shorter periods of deep, dreamless sleep. Rapid eye movement [REM] sleep also occupies less of the total sleep time as we age.”
Perchance to dream
Sadly, sleep has sometimes become synonymous with laziness in our rush-to-get-it- done society. When lifestyle maven Martha Stewart famously announced that she got by on less than five hours of sleep, housewives everywhere began to set the alarm clock earlier and earlier. For high-powered executives, “sleeping less and working more has come to be seen as a sign of power,” says Mendez. “We have forgotten the basics—that adults need an average of seven to nine hours of [quality] sleep, and if we break that rule, we suffer the consequences.”
Those consequences are diverse, serious—and even catastrophic. Being absentminded and forgetting to let the dog out can be annoying and messy—but falling asleep at the wheel can be devastating.
Being awake for 18 or more hours at a stretch is the impairment equivalent of having an elevated blood alcohol level, according to Dr. Kevin Watson, medical director of the Connecticut Sleep Lab in New Britain. “Sleep deprivation increases risks for accidents and falls. Insomnia impairs insulin function, which may contribute to diabetes. Chronic sleep loss impairs the immune system.” The list goes on.
Adequate sleep is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.