Contrary to what you may have heard, the amount of sleep you need as you get older doesn’t decrease. Boomers need about as much sleep – between seven and nine hours – as younger adults.

Unfortunately, the amount of sleep you actually get may tend to decrease as you get older. This may be because you have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep than do your more youthful counterparts.

Many people suffer bouts of insomnia that can last days, weeks, or even longer. As a result, Boomer adults, and particularly women, are more likely to use some form of over-the-counter or prescription sleep aid. For example, roughly one in three adults over 65 use some form of sleep aid occasionally.

This desire to get a good night’s rest is not surprising since sleep plays such a critical role in your health. Adequate sleep is necessary for the optimal functioning of your immune system as well as your cognitive and mental health.

How you feel and function during the day when you are awake is directly related to how well you have slept the night before.

What Causes Insomnia?

Your insomnia may have different causes. Some may be situational. For example, you may be worried about finances, your health, or your kids. Others causes may include medications that you are taking either temporarily, such as for a cold, or to better manage chronic diseases.

There are also physical causes, such as sleep apnea, snoring, an increased need to go to the bathroom during the night, restless legs, depression, sleepwalking, or even bad dreams that interrupt your sleep.

Risks of Sleeping Aids May Outweigh the Benefits

There are many sleeping aids available to help you sleep so they may seem the best – and easiest – solution to your insomnia. However, it’s highly possible that utilizing certain sleeping aids could do more harm than good.

The reason is that as you get older, the potential side effects of both over-the-counter non-prescription and prescription sleep medications can become more pronounced, serious, and riskier than they would be for someone in their 30s or 40s.

Some of these side effects directly impact your health while others may impact your ability to function and perform day-to-day tasks. These include:

  • Constipation and urinary retention
  • Confusion
  • Possible increased risk of dementia
  • Possible increased risk of cancer
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Falls
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Impaired memory

Another risk of taking sleeping aids is what is known as a “prescription cascade.” This is where your healthcare provider unwittingly gives you medications to treat the side effects of the sleep aids you are taking.

As a result, you end up taking more medications than you need, with each of them carrying its own risks and side effects.

Making this worse, “prescription cascade” increases the chances of the multiple medications masking the symptoms of underlying diseases which can make it harder to identify and effectively treat them.

For example, if you’re taking a sleeping pill because a headache is keeping you awake, you’re treating a symptom and not the cause. It´s much better to treat the headache!

Better Ways to Improve Your Sleep

So, given these risk factors and that the American Geriatric Society views most sleep aids as “generally inappropriate” for seniors, what can you do to improve your sleep and get the rest that you need without resorting to medication? Turns out there is a lot you can and should be doing.

First, work with a competent healthcare professional to determine the cause of your insomnia. Once you have determined what it is, then you can work with your doctor to address it.

If, for example, it turns out that there are external factors affecting your sleep, you can take steps to create an environment that is more conducive to falling and staying asleep. Examples of actions you can take may include:

  • Reducing noise or using earplugs if that would be easier.
  • Increasing darkness / reducing ambient light or use eye shades.
  • Keeping the room cooler and well ventilated.
  • Adding plants, such as spider plants, to your bedroom to improve air quality.
  • Making sure your pillows and mattress are the best ones for you.

You should also take a look at how your lifestyle could be impacting your sleep and make appropriate changes. These include:

  • Establishing a set bedtime and sticking to it.
  • Getting enough exercise every day.
  • Avoiding electronic devices such as smart phones in the bedroom.
  • Considering yoga, meditation, or other relaxing activities.
  • Avoiding caffeine in the evening.
  • Avoiding alcohol in the evening.
  • Limiting the number and length of naps your take during the day.
  • Developing a bedtime ritual, such as a hot bath, to set the stage for sleep.

As with all things health related, making sure you get the nutrients your body needs also plays a huge role in ensuring that you get a good night’s sleep. For example, in addition to magnesium, calcium, Vitamin D, and iron may help you fall asleep and maintain a restful state throughout the night.

You can also try eating certain foods, like cherries, which contain melatonin (the sleep hormone). Other foods that may help your insomnia are kiwis, bananas, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables.

If you’re having problems falling or staying asleep, talk with your healthcare provider to see if there may be an underlying cause. Also consider getting a nutrient test to identify whether the nutrients necessary to help you sleep are present in the right balance in your body.

Most importantly, try lifestyle and dietary changes before resorting to over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids.

Are you or someone close to you battling insomnia? If so, what have you been doing about it? Has it been working? Have you considered or are you taking sleep medications to help? What has your experience been with them? Any side effects? Tell us about it. Please join the conversation.

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