For the vast majority of people, the benefits of a good night's rest---a solid seven or eight hours for adults, nine for teenagers---include longer life, better memory, curbed inflammation of the type that leads to heart attacks and diabetes, lower stress and greater creativity. The lack of sleep, on the other hand, leads to drowsiness and irritability, a decline in physical performance and reaction time.
Unfortunately, many adults struggle with insomnia. In this edition of COPELine we look at current sleep research and offer some suggestions for getting a good night's Zzzzzs.
The State of Sleep
There are exceptions to the rule about the ideal amount of shut-eye at both ends of the sleep spectrum. Some people, known as short sleepers, can function quite well on less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Former President Clinton, for instance, was well known for sleeping just five or six hours a night. (This is not the same as insomnia, which occurs when a person has trouble falling or staying asleep.)
On the flipside are what are known as adult long sleepers. They typically sleep for 10 to 12 hours a night. Their sleep quality is good. Long sleeping is consistent and not a result of a medication or a mental health condition. During the week, a long sleeper usually needs to sleep less in order to perform daily tasks like going to a job or school. If they don't get enough sleep, they will feel tired. They may function alright on nine hours of sleep on the weeknights, and sleep between 12 and 15 hours on the weekends to make up for it.
Research is still being done on the topic, but it's possible that short and long sleepers have a gene mutation that affects the amount of sleep required for optimum health.
Aging and Sleep
According to the Mayo Clinic, older adults mention sleep problems more often than do younger adults. The most common complaint: not being able to fall asleep and not being able to stay asleep throughout the night.
As you age, total sleep time decreases slightly---maybe 30 to 60 minutes. Your biological clock tends to reset a little earlier: you are likely to start to feel sleepy earlier in the evening than you used to, and you wake up earlier. At the same time, changes occur in the patterns and stages of sleep. Older adults spend more time in stage N2 sleep, when your breathing and heart rate begin to slow and when it's easier to be awakened. Deep-wave restful sleep (stage N3) decreases, dropping from about 20 percent for a young adult to less than 10 percent after age 70. The result is, you may feel sleepier during the day and lie awake at night more often. In short, sleep becomes lighter and more fragmented.
Aging, Sleep and Complicating Factors
Chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, musculoskeletal pain, acid reflux, anxiety and depression, complicate the older sleeper. But if healthy, the actual number of older adults with insomnia is quite low. For example, it takes less than 10 minutes longer for a healthy 80-year old to fall asleep compared with a 20-year old.
Why Not Just Take a Pill?
With all the prescription and over-the-counter sleep medications available, a pill may seem like the easiest solution, especially when the alternative is no sleep. The problem is, unless your insomnia is short-lived or unique to a particular illness or injury, sleeping pills aren't a solution. They come with unwanted side effects, including residual sleepiness during the day, dizziness, and impairment of mental functioning and muscle coordination.
Try Short-term Counseling
If you've tried yoga, journaling, mindfulness meditation---even sleep restriction techniques---and still can't get a good night's sleep, consider talking to a behavioral sleep specialist, counselor or psychologist who offers cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-I). The Mayo Clinic reports that CBT-I has proven to be an effective therapy for insomniacs, especially older adults. During CBT-I, a therapist helps you to learn and implement strategies that will make it easier to relax at bedtime, especially eliminating unhealthy thought and behavioral patterns. In addition, a therapist can help you deal with the anxiety and stress that may have developed around your sleep habits.
If you or someone you work with is struggling to get the rest they need and would like to speak to a COPE counselor, contact us at email@example.com.
Edited by Greg Kelly.
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