Getting older doesn’t mean you can scrimp on sleep

Research is finding that sleep helps the brain “clean” itself of toxic elements that build up naturally during the day.
Published August 26

Here’s a popular myth: When we retire, we don’t have work and commuting stress so we don’t need as much sleep. And another myth: When the kids are out of the house and we’re empty nesters, we can nap whenever we want for as long as we want.

Wrong. More and more recent research into sleep and its importance for brain health is revealing that the body needs regular, restful and natural sleep at all ages. The brain, we are learning, needs sleep to “clean” itself of toxic elements that build up naturally during the day.

Without that regular and natural detoxing, research is beginning to show, the resulting imbalance can potentially lead to dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep research has changed its focus in recent years, according to Dr. W. McDowell Anderson, program director of Sleep Medicine at the University of South Florida.

One area of increased research is the body’s natural circadian rhythm and the body’s exposure to light and darkness in a 24/7 cycle, Anderson, 68, said. “It’s exposure to light and dark — that’s the one control mechanism for sleep that gets out of balance as you get older.”

The result can be insomnia, which Anderson explains as trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, trouble waking too early or nonrefreshing sleep.

The way to counter a circadian rhythm imbalance isn’t medication, Anderson argues, but instead a matter of routine and attention to a nurturing sleep environment.

Patients at the USF Sleep Center in Tampa receive a 16-item “Sleep Hygiene Checklist,” which is designed to be followed closely. A natural sleep regimen is the nightly goal.

Many of the suggestions seem to be common sense: Set a bedtime and a wakeup time that “allows a minimum of 7-8 hours of total sleep time” and be consistent every night. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, comfortable and dark.

On the other hand, some of the anti-insomnia tips may seem a tad strict: No food or drink after dinner or at night. No caffeine after breakfast. No alcohol after 5 p.m. Eat lunch and dinner at the same time each day. No daytime naps.

But there is some very practical advice on dealing with insomnia. “If sleep does not occur within 15 minutes, get up, leave the (bed)room, sit in an armchair and read a non-stimulating book,” the checklist states. “Go back to bed when you feel sleepy, and try to fall asleep again; if sleep does not occur in 15 minutes, repeat the cycle.”

Anderson also cautioned against keeping smartphones on in the bedroom, even for seniors. The phone’s light can be distracting and the “ping” of an incoming email can be just enough to disturb a light sleep.

“As we get older, we’re not consistent sleepers,” he said.

In regards to memory, sleep becomes even more important with age, Anderson said. “Research in the last 10 years says one purpose of sleep is to augment memory.”

Every decade of age has its issues with sleep, notes Dr. Michelle Zetoony, who promotes sleep education and treatment through her practice in Pinellas Park. Zetoony, 42, is board certified in pulmonary, critical care, sleep and internal medicine. “The biggest issue for people over 50 is they think their sleep problems are normal,” she said. “There are more medication issues as you get older ... so there is less deep sleep.”

Deep sleep, or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, “doesn’t usually change with age,” Zetoony said, “but it changes when sleep is broken up.”

“Anytime you wake up, you actually start your sleep cycle over again. It takes about a cycle of 90 minutes to get to deep sleep. If your deep sleep is interrupted, you’ll feel you got enough time in bed but not rested,” she said.

“After eight hours, if you still feel tired, you are not getting enough quality sleep.”

Two other keys to good sleep are to stay hydrated and to exercise, Zetoony said. “If you are more active, hydrated and physically well, you are ... prepared for a good night’s sleep.”

Zetoony, who frequently gives sleep talks, also addressed another sleep myth: You can make up for lost sleep during the week on the weekend. That’s like being on a diet only on the weekends, she said. It doesn’t get you back on track for healthy sleep patterns.

In a PowerPoint presentation she often uses in her talks, she notes that sleep issues can carry major risks. Chronic lack of sleep can lead to:

• Decreased ability to perform tasks.

• Increased risk of falls.

• Increased incidence of pain.

• Impairment of memory and concentration.

• Shorter survival.

She urges seniors with sleep problems to look at their lifestyle.

“Examine your habits and put sleep as a priority — not as a little piece of life spaced between your activities,” she said.

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at

Good tips for good sleep

Here are some suggestions for a good night’s sleep.

• Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time.

• Practice a natural, relaxing bedroom ritual. Eliminate distracting sounds and lights.

• Avoid naps.

• Exercise daily.

• Evaluate your bedroom. Look for ways to make it inviting, relaxing. Is it cool enough for a comfortable sleep?

• Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillow.

• Avoid cigarettes, alcohol or heavy meals before bedtime.

• Start winding down your activities about an hour before bedtime as you shift from activity mode to sleep mode.

• If you don’t sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing like reading a nonstimulating book.

Source: National Sleep Foundation

Sleep talks

Dr. Michelle Zetoony, who is board certified in pulmonary, critical care, sleep and internal medicine, offers free sleep talks. Among them:

“Memory & Sleep” at 6 p.m. Sept. 10.

“Sleep Apnea & Your Heart” at 6 p.m. Nov. 12.

For details, call (727) 826-0933 or visit

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