Sleep expert shares tips to help older adults address insomnia

Deborah Hart, CEO of Montgomery Place (right), welcomes Lisa Medalie, PsyD, CBSM, who recently offered tips for older adults wanting to address sleep problems. – Photo courtesy of Montgomery Place

Unlike many working adults and young parents who experience sleep deprivation, many older adults have plenty of time to sleep yet they experience insomnia. For this group, sleeping pills and night caps definitely are not the answer, according to Lisa Medalie, PsyD, CBSM, who five years ago, established the clinical program for insomnia at The University of Chicago Medicine. “Sleeping pills increase risk of falling and cognitive problems for older adults. And, alcoholic beverages disrupt the sleep cycle.”

Speaking to a crowd of 65 prospective and current residents gathered at Montgomery Place, a life plan community at 5550 South Shore Drive, Medalie recently shared tips to help older adults and others achieve a good night’s sleep.

“It’s very important to ask yourself, ‘Am I experiencing insomnia, or is it just a consequence of normal aging?’” said Medalie, who works with patients of all ages to develop solutions for behavioral sleep disorders. Prior to joining The University of Chicago Medicine, Medalie completed her fellowship in sleep research at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and her postdoctoral clinical training in sleep behavior at the University of San Diego VA Medical Center.

“Older adults generally sleep less soundly and require less sleep,” she said. “For people 65 or older, seven to eight hours is recommended but five or six may still be okay. Any less is not recommended.”

Older adults also are more likely to awaken briefly between sleep cycles, which range anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours, she added.

“Don’t be alarmed if you wake up in the middle of the night,” she said. “Get up, go to the bathroom if you need to. Then go back to sleep. Don’t worry about it. If you feel rested the next day, it’s just normal aging.”

For those having trouble sleeping, or who feel exhausted and sleepy after having slept, it’s important to eliminate physical causes by getting a checkup. If your doctor suspects sleep apnea, narcolepsy and other sleep-related disorders, a visit to a sleep clinic may be in order, Medalie said.

If there are no physical causes for trouble sleeping, then it may be necessary to adjust behavior and practice better sleep hygiene. To set the stage for good sleep, Medalie offered the following tips.

1. Go for a walk early in the day. Exposure to daylight sets the body clock.
2. Avoid exercise and strenuous activities at night.
3. Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m.
4. Keep naps to 20 minutes or less, and do not nap after 2 p.m.
5. Restrict alcoholic beverages to happy hour.
6. Develop a relaxing routine before bed such as reading a book or taking a hot bath. Consider the hour before bed “me time” with no conversations about stressful topics.
7. Stop using blue-light emitting electronic devices such as televisions, tablets and smart phones one hour before bed. Remove the television from your bedroom.
8. Listen to your body clock if you feel the urge to turn in earlier and awaken earlier. Schedule earlier activities, and avoid late night dinners.
9. It’s okay to use melatonin to help adjust circadian rhythms that promote quality sleep, but avoid taking Benadryl and over-the-counter cold medicines intended for other purposes.

As a teenager, Medalie’s fascination with Sigmund Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams, set her on her career path treating sleep disorders. She and other University of Chicago Medical sleep medicine specialists can be reached by calling 773-834-4150.