Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream. Sound slumber can grow more evasive with age | by Debra Melani


Posted on Mon, Jan 27, 2014

Have you ever found yourself wishing the Sandman’s nightly route included adult bedrooms and not just children’s? Just a little sprinkling of that magic dust in your eyes – that’s all you crave, as you lie awake fearing that sleep won’t come before the alarm clock blares. Sound like you? Then you might be getting old.

Slumber becomes elusive as we age, and the reasons are as bountiful as the gray hairs on our heads. Restful REM cycles decline, circadian clocks fall out of sync, underlying diseases and their drug treatments wreak havoc, and the risk of a number of sleep disorders inches upward with every birthday candle.

DID YOU KNOW? In a National Sleep Foundation poll released in September, only 44 percent of Americans reported getting a good night’s sleep on most nights.

Below, sleep specialists Dr. Evelyn Bolt of North Suburban Medical Center and Dr. Dawn Stanley of Sky Ridge Medical Center offer snapshots of sleep-robbing issues affecting baby boomers today. Both experts advise all weary souls to seek help from specialists, who — unlike certain childhood figures of folklore — do treat people of all ages.

Dr. Evelyn Bolt

Dr. Evelyn Bolt

Sleep apnea

What it is: Obstructive sleep apnea, which affects more than 20 million Americans, steals sleep and robs its victims of oxygen. Relaxed throat muscles are the culprit, becoming more lax as we age and blocking the airways

Why it matters: Poor sleep quality and duration in the older population can increase the risk for falls, depression, cardiovascular disease, mild cognitive impairment, obesity, and even death. But the risks are more profound with sleep apnea , Bolt says. Stanley has seen patients with diabetes, high blood pressure and acid reflux improve after being treated for apnea. “Sometimes they can even go off medications.”

What to do: Get diagnosed, generally by spending the night in a sleep study lab. There, the severity of the apnea can be determined and the best treatment prescribed, such as a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask, oral device or lifestyle changes.

Restless Leg Syndrome

What it is: This “tickly, indescribable urge to move your legs” typically strikes men in their 50’s and women in their 60’s and might have a connection to anemia or liver and thyroid diseases, Bolt says. Other underlying causes could be at play, such as back injuries or medications, Stanley adds.

Why it matters: “In addition to poor sleep health implications, it’s just very uncomfortable and becomes life-altering,” Bolt says. “Some people can’t even travel, because they can’t sit on a plane.”

What to do: “We always start off with ruling out sleep apnea and other causes,” Stanley says. After that, mental distraction can help: doing puzzles or reading before falling asleep, Bolt says. Cutting down on caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can ease symptoms, as can adding some prescription medications, she says.


What it is: The stage in a woman’s life when menses stops and estrogen levels dive, which can create a number of sleep-depriving problems, including insomnia due to night sweats and obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea, which is more common in men than women at younger ages, evens out statistically after menopause.

Dr. Dawn Stanley

Dr. Dawn Stanley

Why it matters: Same as apnea.

What to do: Improve sleep habits, treat menopause symptoms when possible (see sidebar), and seek evaluation for sleep apnea.

Menopause: Eyes wide open?

If hot flashes and night sweats are sabotaging your sleep routine, patience rather than hormone replacement therapy might be the answer, says obstetrician Dr. Andrew Ross of Swedish Medical Center. Hot flashes are side effects of estrogen withdrawal that strike early in menopause and gradually go away when the body adapts to the hormone loss, Ross says. So a woman who starts HRT and then stops it 10 years later will have her hot flashes return, as the problem was only masked.

Other good life/sleep habits can help women battle menopause-related sleep issues, says Dr. Kimberly Larson-Ohlsen, a gynecologist and integrative medicine specialist with The Medical Center of Aurora. Those include:

  • Avoiding caffeine, which can hinder sleep even eight hours later.
  • Ensuring other prescriptions aren’t causing insomnia.
  • Avoiding alcohol, which suppresses good REM sleep.
  • Treating anxiety/stress issues regularly (meditation, yoga, biofeedback).
  • Maintaining bed only for sleep and sex, not TV, reading, etc.
  • Exercising early in the day.
  • Darkening room: no electronic-gadget lights on (or used just before bed).
  • Keeping regular sleep and wake times.
  • Seeking expert advice on botanicals, melatonin, other natural aids (for instance, Larson-Ohlsen sometimes prescribes ashwagandha, valerian root, hops, magnesium and acupuncture)


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