Yes, your mother was right. We all need eight hours of sleep each night, no matter how old we are.
The numbers from such organizations as the National Sleep Foundation suggest that roughly 45 percent of Americans have experienced poor or insufficient sleep that affects their daily routines, including those of us 50 and older.
"Not receiving the proper amount of sleep can be detrimental to your health and affect those around you," noted Dr. Scott Powell, 42, a board-certified ENT with Florida E.N.T. & Allergy in Tampa.
"When sleep loss becomes severe, your perception and judgment reach an altered state, much like that of a person drinking alcohol," Powell said.
A shift in sleep patterns is natural as people get older, Powell said. "Their body wants them to go to bed a little bit earlier."
A number of factors can alter our sleeping patterns as we age, including illness, medications for an illness, mental distractions, anxieties and even family sleep patterns.
The important thing to know, Powell emphasized, is that "it's a misnomer that as you get older you don't need as much sleep. It's just that you don't get as much sleep."
Often, the symptoms of not getting enough sleep are subtle. There can be mild "memory distortions," such as not remembering exactly when something happened or forgetting someone's name. Frequently, a spouse's feedback will be the first sign.
"Each day that you are racking (less sleep) up, the effect is more and more cumulative," Powell said — including getting even less sleep. People "think they can handle (less sleep), but they don't realize what they are doing to their body. They're in denial."
Persistent loss of sleep can lead to a number of potential physical and mental conditions, from diabetes to depression. Other effects can be greater difficulty losing weight, reduced sexual drive and sagging skin that makes a person look even older, he said. "They're accelerating the aging process ... and making it worse (and) quicker."
Tips to avoid sleep problems are "easy and obvious," Powell said. He offered the following:
• Avoid nicotine, caffeine and alcohol at least four to five hours before going to bed.
• Make the bedroom "a sleeping space — cool, dark, peaceful, quiet."
• Sleep when you're tired.
• Face the bedroom clock away from you to avoid additional anxiety.
• Don't eat late at night. Avoid sugars and simple carbohydrates, "which can ramp up your metabolism."
• Exercise early in the day.
• Maintain your sleep schedule on the weekends. Try to avoid "sleeping in. Your body will lose that (sleep) rhythm."
• Turn off the bedroom TV. Write in a journal or read a book to calm the mind.
• Turn off smartphones, tablets and computers in the bedroom. "Electronics are completely ruining what the brain is trying to do when going to sleep. Anxiety over missing something on the internet keeps the brain wired, wired, wired," Powell said.
There's actually a proposed term for fear of missing a call or email — "nomophobia," Powell said.
With or without electronics, sleep can be a challenge as we get older, noted Dr. Michael Jaffee, associate professor of neurology at the University of Florida.
"Sleep requirements do not go down as we age," said Jaffee, 50, "but we do have more sleep disturbances. Some people want to attribute that to aging itself. More often, it's medical problems like menopause in women or not being able to control the bladder or pain conditions or neurological conditions like depression."
But the body wants to sleep. The brain naturally produces melatonin, a chemical that promotes sleep. "As we get older, less of it is secreted," Jaffee said, "and sometimes that results in wanting to go to bed earlier or wake up earlier."
Recent studies have found even more motivation for a consistent good night's sleep.
The brain naturally eliminates a protein known as amyloid while we sleep. With less sleep, fewer amyloids are eliminated, Jaffee explained. A buildup of amyloids is seen as a marker for the process of Alzheimer's, he said.
A good night's sleep can be as simple as wearing socks to bed, Jaffee said, because cold feet can wake you up.
Prescription medicines can sometimes have side effects that prohibit a restful sleep, Jaffee said. He suggests that patients always be proactive and ask their physician about side effects, including sleep disturbances. "Everyone responds to medications a little bit differently," he said.
And we can't really catch up on missed sleep on the weekend, he said. "Makeup sleep is not the same as restful sleep."
Just like Mom said all along.
Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at [email protected]