Do You Have Insomnia?

Trouble sleeping can be a warning signal of other serious physical problems
BY Marilyn Murray Willison TIMEFebruary 11, 2021 PRINT

There used to be an old wives’ tale that suggested older people needed a lot less sleep than younger people. But according to The National Institutes of Health, older adults only need one hour less sleep—the recommended amount is 6 1/2 to 7 hours per night. Unfortunately, almost half of adults age 60 and older experience insomnia, a form of sleep deprivation that can last anywhere from days to weeks to months.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, normal sleep is NREM sleep or non-rapid eye movement sleep. There are four stages, beginning with light sleep and progressing to deeper sleep. During REM sleep, or rapid eye movement, our breathing becomes irregular and shallow; our eyes move rapidly; limb muscles become immobile, and vivid dreaming may occur. The entire NREM-REM cycle usually lasts around 90 minutes and can take place four to five times during a night of normal sleep.

It’s important to understand this process because as we age, we tend to spend less time in the all-important restorative REM phase. And as annoying as insomnia can be, it can actually serve as a warning signal of other serious but unrecognized physical problems. In fact, according to Dr. Alon Y. Avidan, the director of the sleep clinic at the University of California—Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine, insomnia “is a symptom, not a diagnosis.” In older adults, sleep issues can be triggered by conditions ranging from arthritis and asthma to COPD and prostate problems. And if prescription drugs (like diuretics or antidepressants) or behavioral issues (like an inactive lifestyle or late-night eating) are present, then the problem of sleep deprivation needs to be addressed holistically.

In addition to a full physical checkup, it can help to establish a regular bedtime routine that avoids factors that could interfere with falling—and staying—asleep. Taking a hot bath before bed and drinking a glass of warm milk to help induce sleepiness are two options. And many sleep experts feel that it’s important to avoid alcohol before bedtime because even though it can make you sleepy at first, it can make it difficult to stay asleep.

Because we are diurnal creatures, the presence of light can directly affect the quality of our sleep. With a price tag of $24.95, Lighting Science has created a GoodNight light bulb specifically to help induce sleep with a depleted blue spectrum light. The company has an entire line of biological bulbs that are designed to give off light that will complement (rather than disrupt) a person’s circadian rhythm. And in 2016, Apple introduced a feature called Night Shift that reduces the amount of blue light that is emitted from the products’ screens. Philips has developed a line of smart bulbs called Hue that can be connected with a wireless network and smart-home systems like Amazon Alexa and Nest.

Peter J. Hauri, a sleep specialist at the Mayo Clinic, urges patients to practice “good sleep hygiene.” His suggestions include:

  • Limiting naps to less than 30 minutes a day (preferably in the early afternoon)
  • Avoiding stimulants and sedatives
  • Getting moderate daily exercise (preferably in the morning or early afternoon)
  • Avoiding heavy meals and minimizing liquids for 2 to 3 hours before bedtime
  • Getting exposure to bright light or sunshine during the day
  • Going to bed only when sleepy

It pays to avoid prescription sleep aids (like Ambien, Rozerem and Sonata) because—like all medications—they can have unforeseen side effects.

Mark Zielinski, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has conducted extensive research on the brain signals that tell the body’s major systems to shut down each night. Doctors today know that people who suffer from interrupted or reduced sleep are at higher risk of developing a variety of challenging health issues. These include diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and even obesity.

Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California—Berkeley, told Alice Park at Time magazine, “Sleep is the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body for health.” Obviously, Shakespeare really knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “O sleep,/ O gentle sleep,/ Nature’s soft nurse.”

Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker, and journalist in both the UK and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir “One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes.” She can be reached at To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at Copyright2020 Creators.Com

Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time award-winning nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker, and journalist in both the U.K. and the United States. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir “One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes.” Her website is
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