If you’ve spent any time around older folks, you know that insomnia is common for many of us. Nearly 42 percent of senior citizens reported having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep in a 1995 survey. Often, insomnia is a symptom of something else, rather than a diagnosis on its own.
There are two types of insomnia: primary and secondary.
Primary insomnia is caused by a problem that occurs while you’re sleeping due to a health issue like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. Secondary insomnia is caused by environmental factors such as medications or blue spectrum light.
A contributing factor to secondary insomnia may be the natural yellowing of the lens of your eye as you age. The lens is responsible for filtering light. Your brain uses these light signals to trigger the release of melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. As you age, the lens gets yellower and yellower, which decreases the amount of blue light that makes it into your eyes. Blue light lets you know that it’s daytime. The lack of blue light could be why older people are more likely to be sleepy during the daytime, but not when they’re supposed to be sleeping.
“The lower the blue light transmission into the retina due to a yellowing of the eye lens, the greater the risk of sleep disturbances,” the American Academy of Sleep Medicine wrote.
Swedish researchers found that patients who had cataract surgery had significantly reduced rates of both insomnia and daytime sleepiness since the cataract surgery lightens the lenses. You could also counteract sleepiness by sitting in front of a “happy lamp” or UV lamp that emits blue spectrum light on a daily basis.
Another contributing factor to secondary insomnia is medication, which a lot of older people take more than their younger counterparts.
Medications in the categories of alpha and beta-blockers have been found to be the top two medications that cause insomnia because they decrease the amount of REM sleep that you get or increase the number of sleep disturbances. They are often prescribed to older people. If you find yourself on these medicines and sleeping less, talk to your doctor about changing up your medication or the time when you take it.
Two good ways to improve your insomnia are to build a bedtime routine and to be physically active. A bedtime routine doesn’t need to be elaborate – something as simple as brushing your teeth, washing your face and reading a book can be your routine – but it does need to be restful and consistent, no matter whether you’re staying at home or with your children. It’s something simple to remind your body that it’s time for bed when you do those things.
However, the routine probably won’t help with sleep disturbances, which is where physical activity comes in. Regular exercise, even walking, has been found to help lower symptoms of disturbed sleep, especially when it lasts for at least an hour.
Taking some steps to improve your sleep quality can help counteract the natural insomnia that can arise as you age.
This article was contributed by Alicia Sanchez, who is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com with a specialty in health and wellness.