Spring yourself forward to better sleep

The National Sleep Foundation kicks off Sleep Awareness Week with the nationwide Sleep in America Poll and ends on Daylight Savings Time each year in early March.

It's no coincidence that Sleep Awareness Week coincides with Daylight Savings Time, the annual spring forward that comes with a loss of an hour of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation chose to host the event in early March due to the increase in sleep deprived related accidents, says Kevin Asp, founder of Alaska Sleep Clinic. In 2003, the Sleep in America Poll found that while most older adults have healthy sleep habits, untreated sleep disorders may be interfering with their ability to cope with chronic health conditions.

Ability vs. need

The most common misconception about senior sleep health, Asp says, is the myth that seniors need fewer hours of sleep than they did when they were younger. The real problem is that as we age, we lose our ability to get quality sleep because we spend less time in stage 3 of our non REM sleep. Stage 3 is the deepest stage of the non REM sleep. We tend to have a higher arousal threshold in this stage of sleep that makes it harder for us to be woken up.

As we age, we spend more time in the lighter sleep stages with lower arousal thresholds and are easily woken up, and therefore, spend less time getting quality sleep.    

How daylight affects our biological clock

In addition to the lighter sleep cycles, older adults' circadian rhythms are no longer the same as they were when they were younger. Our circadian rhythms change throughout the different periods of growth.

During adolescence, teens with Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome tend to wake up much later in the morning than normal and don't feel sleepy until late at night. For older adults with Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome, it's the other way around, and seniors have trouble staying up late and tend to rise earlier in the morning.

Usually, Advanced Sleep Syndrome is harmless if it doesn't negatively impact social and work interactions, but if unusual sleep patterns are disrupting everyday life, simple light therapy can be of help, says Asp. Turning on bright lights or getting more sun in the evening hours will reset the biological clock and put you on a healthier sleep schedule.

More than just snoring

Out of 84 different sleep disorders, the most common sleep disorder seen at sleep clinics is sleep apnea, says Asp. Sleep apnea is more prevalent in older, overweight men and in women who have already gone through menopause, and is caused by weight gain in the neck and a large soft palate.

"But it's not just about snoring," says Brent Fischer, CEO of the Alaska Sleep Clinic. "A lot of people think sleep apnea is snoring, but snoring is only a symptom."

As those with sleep apnea sleep, they frequently stop breathing and cut off oxygen to the body, causing severe stress on the heart. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to a variety of heart problems including heart disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes.  

Alternative ways to treat sleep apnea

CPAP machines can be used at night to correct sleep apnea, but if you're not a fan of wearing a mask at night, there are alternative ways to treat the problem, depending on the severity. A simple at-home solution could be taping a sock stuffed with a tennis ball to your back at night. When you try to lay on your back, the tennis ball will poke you enough that you'll roll over to your side mid-slumber, allowing you to get the oxygen you need to protect your heart.

For moderate sleep apnea, patients can try a dental device that pulls the lower jaw forward and corrects the breathing as you sleep.

Another preemptive measure could be as simple as making sure to exercise and eat properly every day. Weight gain increases chances of getting sleep apnea, and an overall healthy lifestyle is essential to a healthy heart.

Lifestyle changes for better sleep health

Some of the issues affecting our sleep are much easier to control:

• Although short cat naps here and there can seem harmless, excessive napping throughout the day makes it harder to sleep at night.

• Chronic health problems and medication can keep you awake for hours at a time.

• Coffee first thing in the morning is a great wake up call, but all that caffeine stays in your body for up to 12 hours, Asp says.

Limiting naps, taking medication earlier in the day and avoiding caffeine after lunch can help remedy insomnia at night.

Sleep centers

Although there are many reasonable at-home remedies, the best way to find out if you have sleep apnea or one of the multitude of other sleep disorders is to visit a sleep clinic. Fortunately, sleep clinics are readily available to patients around Alaska. Alaska Sleep Clinic has four locations: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Wasilla and Soldotna.

Home sleep tests are also viable options, and video conferencing has made it possible to reach out to patients in remote locations like Bethel and Dutch Harbor.

For more information on sleep disorders, visit alaskasleep.com, one of the most referenced sleep health websites in the country.

For the latest information about National Sleep Awareness Week events and the Sleep in America poll, "like" the National Sleep Foundation on Facebook or visit sleepfoundation.org.

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