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Sleep and older adults: Less is not more

One of the most common complaints for older

One of the most common complaints for older adults is the inability to get a good night's sleep. Credit: istock

Older adults like to say that 70 is the new 50. But don't plan on celebrating too late, because 8 p.m. is the old midnight.

One of the most common complaints for older adults is the inability to get a good night's sleep. Many write it off as a normal part of aging. Others think they don't need as much sleep as they used to. "There has been a myth out there that as we get older, we need less sleep," says Sonia Ancoli-Israel, a professor at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and director of the college's Gillin Sleep and Chronobiology Research Center. "Older adults need seven to eight hours. It's the ability to sleep that is decreased rather than the need for sleep."

There actually is a physical reason that makes sleep harder for older adults. Ancoli-Israel says that as we age, circadian rhythms -- the body's inner clock -- change. "The clock begins to advance so that older adults get sleepy earlier in the evening, at 7, 8 or 9," she says. "If they were to go to bed at that hour, they would probably sleep their 7-8 hours."

Your body may be telling you that 8 p.m. is bedtime, but your brain scoffs at the notion, so you make yourself stay up to 10 or 11. "But their clock is still running in such a way that they're going to wake up at 4 in the morning," Ancoli-Israel says. This causes perhaps the biggest sleep problem for older adults: waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble getting back to sleep.

Ancoli-Israel says if you awaken in the middle of the night, try not to turn on any lights, even if you're heading to the bathroom. "It's like telling your brain, 'It's time to get up.'" Of course, you don't want to trip or bump into any furniture, so make sure you have nightlights to help you navigate. Also, those heavy eyelids that almost cause you to nod off after dinner come in handy here. "If you open your eyes wide and wake yourself totally up, it's harder to go back to sleep," she says.

If you continually have trouble sleeping, see a doctor. Sleep problems may be connected to serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease or cancer. For those already diagnosed with a serious illness, make sure your doctor is also aware of your sleep problem. "You still want the sleep treated separately," Ancoli-Israel says.

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