Question: My mother is 85 and in good health, but can’t get more than a couple hours of sleep every night. She says that’s all she needs. Do I need to worry?
Dr. Hibberd’s answer:
Many older patients have similar sleep cycles. Sometimes we feel that we do not sleep, when in fact we find we are lapsing into briefer multiple sleep sessions as opposed to one long session.
In any event, do not worry. It probably would be a good idea for y our mother to visit her physician just to be sure nothing more serious is being overlooked. We all understand that many older people are reluctant to tell their families of any new health issues, and this visit should be re-assuring for both of you. As long as she is feeling well, no changes are necessary.
While it is common to experience shortened sleep cycles as we age, we do need more than a couple of hours each night. Much of the time, sleep problems at night are tied to daytime napping. In any event, as long as your mother is comfortable and alert the following morning, and has no sleep apnea, metabolic disorder, or heart failure, she will probably fall into the group where no treatments are recommended.
Most of us should get approximately eight hours of sleep, give or take an hour or two for individual variation. Some of us can sleep just five or six hours and have just as much relief and brain-refreshing REM sleep as those who sleep longer. The tipoffs for evaluation are usually the presence of fatigue, morning headache, irritability, shortness of breath, swelling, cloudy memory, or the suspicion of sleep apnea.
For healthy sleep patterns, I usually recommend an evaluation of sleep hygiene and sleep circumstances that may contribute to a shortened or disturbed sleep at night. There are devices that can be worn overnight to evaluate sleep disturbances and a sleep lab test is also an option.
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