What's In This Article?
There are a number of factors that increase the risk of baby boomers developing sleep disorders. Some of them are related to age. Others are related to medication side effects or seemingly-unrelated health conditions.
We’ve taken a look at the reasons why baby boomers often struggle with sleep disorders. If you’re an older adult who hasn’t been sleeping well lately, it’s best to talk to your doctor. They may have some insight into how to improve your quality of life.
Why Are Sleep Disorders So Common in Baby Boomers?
Baby boomers might experience disturbed sleep because of a combination of different factors. Even just one of these factors can be enough to cause insomnia and tiredness.
Age-Related Sleep Changes
As you age, you have to deal with a variety of changes in your body. Sleep is no exception. Some baby boomers develop sleep disorders simply because they’re getting older.
A person’s sleep needs are different at different periods of their life. For example, adolescents often stay up later and need more sleep than the average adult. Young children need to take a nap during the day, and young adults might not sleep much at all.
One of the changes that occurs when you get older is that your sleep timing changes. You might wake up earlier than you used to, or you might struggle to fall asleep as quickly as you did before. It’s common for baby boomers to have a decreased overall amount of sleep each night.
Another change that occurs with aging is the amount of time you spend in each sleep stage. Different “stages” correspond to different levels of sleep. Older adults spend more time in light sleep than in deep REM sleep.
The sleep cycle tends to be fragmented. You go through more cycles each night than you did as a young adult. This leads to a greater chance of being disturbed in the middle of the night.
Some people notice that their circadian rhythm changes as they age. Your internal clock becomes less sensitive to different light levels. Some of the factors that can influence this include:
- You have recently retired, so you aren’t sticking to your daily work routine.
- You nap more during the day.
- You are often apart from windows, so you don’t get consistent light exposure that regulates your clock.
These shifts might cause you to feel sleepy early in the evening, sometimes before the sun even sets. You might also wake up earlier in the morning than you used to.
This isn’t necessarily bad. But it can be frustrating and disruptive, especially if you’re used to spending a good portion of the night awake.
Despite often getting less sleep, older adults do need the same amount of sleep as younger people, according to the National Institute on Aging. If you aren’t getting at least seven hours of rest each night, you could end up having health issues.
Side Effects of Medical Conditions
Baby boomers are more likely to have certain health conditions than the general population. Health issues are a natural part of aging. Many of these health conditions have sleep issues as a side effect.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with a new medical condition, it might be related to your lack of sleep. It’s important to talk to your doctor about any potential symptoms, including trouble sleeping.
Dementia and post-stroke conditions can lead to sleep disturbances and an overall decline in neurological health. Other conditions that can cause sleep disturbances include:
- Congestive heart failure
- Coronary artery disease
- Chronic pain
- Sleep apnea
- Renal disease
- Endocrine menopause
Some of these conditions cause symptoms that make it difficult to sleep. For example, menopause leads to uncomfortable hot flashes, and chronic pain makes it difficult to get comfortable.
Other conditions, like anemia, can lead to increased overall fatigue.
You might not notice sleep apnea, since it happens while you’re resting. Most people only discover they have sleep apnea when a partner points it out. But the interrupted breathing can lead to poor overall sleep quality, and it might cause you to wake in the night.
Side Effects of Medications
There are multiple medications that can lead to trouble sleeping. Some on the list include:
- Beta-blockers for heart disease
- Certain anti-epileptic medications
- Certain antidepressants
- Stimulant medications
- Certain steroids
- Decongestants like pseudoephedrine
If you’ve recently begun taking one of these or increased your dosage, it might be impacting your sleep symptoms. You can talk to your doctor about ways to manage the issue. These might be adding a sleep medication, reducing your current medication dose, or switching to a different medicine.
The Most Common Sleep Disorders Experienced by Baby Boomers
These are some sleep disorders that baby boomers might develop later in life, even if they’ve been sleeping fine prior to this.
Insomnia is among the most common sleep disorders faced by people of all age groups. It becomes even more prevalent in older populations.
If you have insomnia, you might find it difficult to fall asleep. Alternatively, it might be difficult for you to stay asleep once you’ve gone to bed. Some people with insomnia suffer from both of these problems.
It’s common for those with insomnia to feel like they aren’t refreshed upon waking. They may be more tired during the day, and they might also be more susceptible to certain health problems.
The American Psychiatric Association states that insomnia is the most common sleep-related disorder.
Insomnia can be clinically diagnosed if a person meets these criteria:
- It is difficult to sleep a minimum of three nights every week for at least three months.
- The trouble with sleep is causing distress and interfering with a person’s ability to function in day-to-day life.
The condition is often separated into “chronic” and “acute” diagnoses.
Acute insomnia occurs in response to environmental stimuli. You might develop it because of stress, changes in your sleeping pattern, an upsetting event, jet lag, pain, or certain types of medication.
A case is considered chronic when it has lasted for at least three months. These cases might involve secondary or primary insomnia. With primary insomnia, the cause is unknown. With the secondary type, the insomnia is related to another condition.
In addition to aging, some of the risk factors for developing insomnia include:
- High stress levels
- A low income
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Traveling between time zones
- Working the night shift
- Psychiatric disorders like depression
People with insomnia might become irritable. It might also be hard to concentrate during the day.
Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person stops breathing temporarily in their sleep. There are two kinds of sleep apnea: central and obstructive.
Obstructive apnea occurs when there is a physical blockage of the airway. It often happens when people sleep on their backs and their throat collapses as they inhale.
Central apnea happens because of the central nervous system. It is significantly less common than obstructive apnea. Instead of having a blocked airway, the brain simply forgets to make sure you breathe.
Only about twenty percent of individuals have central apnea. Eighty percent of cases involve obstructive apnea.
If you have central apnea, it might be related to a variety of medical conditions, including:
- A heart attack or stroke
- Heart failure
- Inflammation in the brain
- Spinal arthritis
- Spinal radiation or surgery
- Parkinson’s disease
It’s also possible for medications like opioids to cause central apnea.
With obstructive apnea, oftentimes the first symptom will be snoring. Not everyone who snores has obstructive apnea, but loud snoring often indicates a problem.
If you have obstructive apnea, your doctor might recommend a CPAP machine. This machine uses air pressure to keep your muscles from collapsing in sleep, so you continue breathing without issue.
Your doctor might also recommend that you sleep on your side or your stomach instead of your back. Some people benefit from a mouthpiece that realigns the jaw and reduces snoring.
In rare cases, surgery is an option for people with obstructive sleep apnea.
Circadian Rhythm Disorders
Circadian rhythm disorders are sleep disorders that occur when your internal clock becomes misaligned or interrupted.
The brain is responsible for regulating the sleep-wake cycle. It does this largely by reacting to different light levels. When the sun comes up, it releases chemicals to help you feel awake and alert. When the sun goes down, it releases chemicals to make you sleepy.
Older people are more likely to experience disruptions in their circadian rhythm. This can make it frustrating to try to stick to a regular sleep schedule.
There are several types of circadian disorder. The most common one that occurs in older people is the advanced sleep phase. When you have this disorder, you’ll get tired and want to go to bed earlier than the majority of people.
Most individuals with this disorder go to bed anywhere from 6 PM to 9 PM. They also wake up naturally anywhere from 2 AM to 5 AM. Once you reach middle age, your likelihood of this disorder increases. It increases even more after retirement age.
Delayed sleep is less common in boomers. It often occurs in adolescents. This condition causes you to sleep later than most people.
A non-24-hour disorder occurs when your brain doesn’t regulate its own circadian rhythm using light. Your sleep patterns might be varied and hard to predict. It’s common for people to sleep later and later at night, until they’re sleeping through the day.
Blindness and dementia can both contribute to this disorder.
An irregular sleep-wake disorder occurs when a person doesn’t sleep for an uninterrupted period of time each night. Instead, they nap several times during the day. To have this disorder, a person must sleep at least three times each day.
Jet lag and shift work disorders occur due to environmental factors. You might struggle to sleep if you travel to another time zone, because your body isn’t used to the new schedule. Similarly, if you work nights, you might struggle to get enough sleep during the day.
Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless leg syndrome, most commonly known as RLS, is a neurological issue. It causes you to feel an uncontrollable need to move your legs at night. This can severely impact your ability to sleep.
RLS is an uncomfortable condition, but the most concerning aspect is how it affects sleep. Many people with RLS are fatigued and sleepy during the day. If you suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, you might also be at risk of other health issues.
About ten percent of people in the US suffer from RLS. The condition can begin regardless of age, but your risk increases as you get older. Most people who have it are middle-aged or older. More severe cases also tend to occur in elderly populations.
Women develop RLS twice as often as men do.
Around 80 percent of RLS patients have a comorbid disorder called PLMS, for periodic limb movement in sleep. With this disorder, the legs jerk or twitch while you sleep. Even if you don’t consciously wake up, this can decrease your quality of sleep.
There isn’t a cure for RLS, and neurologists aren’t certain exactly what causes it. However, there are medications that can help with symptom management.
Part of the disease seems to be genetic. About 40 percent of individuals have a family history of the condition. Researchers have also isolated five genetic variants that might contribute to RLS.
Many individuals with Parkinson’s disease have RLS. Researchers theorize that this is because both conditions involve interruptions to the brain’s dopamine pathways.
REM Behavior Disorder
REM behavior disorder occurs when a person acts out their dreams in sleep. The dreams tend to be vivid and might involve many different movements.
This condition differs from sleepwalking and night terrors because you can remember the dream when you wake up. Sleepwalkers and sufferers of night terrors often wake without any understanding of where they are or what’s happening.
RBD is a relatively rare sleep disorder, occurring in fewer than one in one hundred people. It can be treated using medications. Most people have other sleep or medical disorders alongside this condition, which might need additional help.
The condition sometimes occurs due to medication side effects. It is also sometimes an early sign of a neurodegenerative illness.
How Can Baby Boomers Address Different Sleep Disorders?
Addressing your sleep disorder will vary depending on the exact disorder, the cause, and whether you have any co-occurring conditions. The same steps won’t be right for everyone.
Talk to Your Doctor
The first step is to talk to your doctor about your symptoms. They may be able to figure out the cause. If the symptoms are a side effect of a new medication, your doctor can help you adjust your medication regimen.
Talking to your doctor is also important because some sleep disorders might indicate a more serious problem. If you’re dealing with something like dementia or Parkinson’s, early diagnosis is key to an improved prognosis.
Have a Bedtime Routine
One of the most important things you can do is create a bedtime routine. This is a series of steps that informs your body that it’s bedtime.
Some items that you might include in your routine are:
- Washing your face and brushing your teeth
- Turning out the lights
- Reading a book for ten or fifteen minutes
- Doing some gentle exercise
- Writing in a journal
- Listening to soothing podcasts
Make Your Space Comfortable
If your bed isn’t comfortable, it will be much harder to sleep. An important component of sleep hygiene is creating a relaxing space to rest.
This means washing your sheets each week, rotating your mattress when need be, and fluffing your pillows. It also means dimming the lights in your room and keeping the temperature at around 65 degrees.
The more comfortable your bed is, the easier it will be to relax. If you’re having trouble turning your mind off, consider making yourself some soothing tea each night before going to bed.
Sleep is an important aspect of physical health no matter your age. But for baby boomers, it’s of paramount importance. That’s why sleep disorders can be so frustrating to deal with.
When you understand your symptoms, you can talk to your doctor about how to treat any potential sleep disorders you may have.