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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Boomers, seniors must adjust to ever-changing patterns

Wina Sturgeon McClatchy-Tribune

It’s just a myth, and a dangerous one: the widespread belief that as you age, you need less sleep. The fact is, those 50 and older need the same amount of sleep they needed when younger. The difference? Boomers and seniors will often sleep differently than they did when younger.

Sleep needs vary among individuals. Some exist well on four or five hours of sleep a night. Others may need 10 hours of sleep to feel rested and alert. The requirements don’t change much with the years, but the sleep pattern does.

Some middle-age folks can’t or don’t adjust to these changes. They end up fighting sleep, warding it off. They may no longer feel the same sleepy feeling that previously signaled when they were about to fall asleep. Or they may wake up every two or three hours and take it as a cue that they can’t sleep. In fact, the simple solution to that common cause of insomnia is to merely shut the eyes, relax the mind, and go back to sleep.

One of the biggest causes of midlife insomnia is the missing “sleep” signal. When it stops, a lot of folks lay in bed waiting to feel sleepy. Maybe they read or watch TV. Then the worst part often happens: It’s been a couple of hours, it’s late, and they start getting irritated because they can’t fall asleep. Mind and body are now totally involved in thinking they are fighting insomnia; when in fact they are fighting sleep – because any kind of “fighting” will chase sleep away.

The solution, again, is simple. Turn off lights, shut eyes, relax and go to sleep – as if the signal had come.

However, sleep problems often can be triggered by a condition that needs medical attention, such as like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and night cramps, even heart problems. A thorough physical should reveal whether there’s a medical reason for insomnia.

If not, here is something to think about: A number of studies have proved that middle-age people who don’t get their regular hours of sleep, however interrupted it may be, are less alert, find it harder to perform complex tasks, and have slower mental skills.

Since those are also “symptoms” associated with aging, there’s a tendency to ignore the signs of sleep deprivation.

When adjusting to changing sleeping patterns, there also may be a change in positions of physical comfort during sleep. There will be those who now sleep better when their head is raised, and who will benefit from using several pillows. There are side sleepers who will be more comfortable if they use a body pillow to cushion the lower leg against the weight of the upper leg.

One way to increase the hours of a good night’s sleep is sun exposure. Even half an hour of sunlight helps keep the body clock ticking. Those who haven’t been in the sun all day may benefit from taking vitamin D; which is not just one vitamin, but a complex, like vitamin B.

Most boomers and seniors already know the other part of mid-age sleep: it’s lighter. People wake up easier. If that neighbor warming up the car before leaving for work at 5 a.m. sends a wake-up call, just go back to sleep. Don’t think about it.

In fact, once in bed for sleep – which is the only time anyone should be in their bed – don’t think about anything.