Aging and Sleep

Sleep Like a Baby Again:                            

Q&A with Dr. Charlene Gamaldo

Dr. Charlene Gamaldo

Dr. Charlene Gamaldo

Johns Hopkins sleep specialist and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at HCGH explains common sleep problems that come with age, and considerations for aging women.

Why is everyone concerned about sleep?

In addition to not feeling your best when you don’t get enough sleep, a lack of sleep has been shown to have a negative effect on your cardiovascular and mental health – and even weight management. People today are chronically sleep deprived. On average, Americans get an average of 30 minutes less sleep than we did ten years ago.

How much sleep does an older person need?

If you needed eight hours of sleep a night when you were 22 years old, that is also what you need as a 70-year-old; it doesn’t change. Our brain has an internal clock that sets our biorhythms, including natural sleep and wake times. For most adults, the times are about 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. A natural “morning lark” may have a schedule that is shifted earlier, and a “night owl” may have a schedule that is shifted later. Our natural sleep rhythm is like our personality; it is pretty fixed at birth although we can shift our clock times earlier as we age. Each of us is unique in our sleep duration needs. Most adults need about 7.5 to 8 hours, but some need more and some less.

Are there differences for women?

Aside from hormonal changes and “hot flashes” that can happen during menopause, women can have a slightly higher incidence of sleep disorders, like insomnia and restless legs syndrome. Another important point is that women can present differently with certain types of sleep disorders. Women with sleep apnea are more likely to complain of insomnia rather than more classic symptoms like snoring or daytime sleepiness seen in the male patient. Other factors can affect diagnosis of sleep disorders in women too – for example, a widow who sleeps alone may be less aware of signs of sleep apnea than if she had a partner who could report her sleep patterns.

 Is sleep apnea more common in older people?

Sleep apnea prevalence increases with age. Other classic risk factors include higher BMI, small chin, large neck, big tongue. Elderly sleep apneic patients are more likely to have the condition even in the absence of these other more classic risk factors. Common symptoms are: breath pauses during sleep, snoring, daytime sleepiness, fatigue, feeling irritable or unrefreshed upon waking in the morning.

How do we improve sleep as we age?

I recommend simple strategies first like: forming a regular sleep routine, allowing your body to “wind down” in the hours before sleep as opposed to drinking caffeine, exercising or working on the computer. Losing weight or limiting alcohol can also improve your body’s natural ability to obtain good quality sleep.

When is it time to see a doctor about sleep problems?

If the simple strategies aren’t helping and if your inability to sleep affects work or daytime activities, relationships or mood, it is probably time to seek help. There are many reasons people have trouble sleeping and numerous sleep disorders. We have specialists in many areas of sleep medicine who can pinpoint your particular issue and provide interventions that can help you get back to sleeping well again.

To schedule an appointment call 1-800-WESLEEP.

To hear more from the specialists at the new sleep center at HCGH, watch these videosTopics include: women and sleep, depression and sleep, insomnia, restless legs syndrome, circadian rhythm disorder, sleep apnea, and new at-home technology for diagnosing sleep disorders.