Old Age and Insomnia

Older people tend to go to bed earlier and rise earlier. It seems that their circadian rhythms have shifted, and for no apparent reason. Older people also get less sleep than younger people even though they require just as much. At least that’s the way the story goes.

I think this shift and truncation of sleep may be caused by less demand on our time in the evening and getting poor sleep at night. One thing we do know, our sleep propensity curve (Figure 1-1 of In Pursuit of Sleep), which is only somewhat dependent on sunlight, is malleable and is easily changed. I also believe that older people sleep less because we are more thoughtful, and our thoughts have a tendency to bleed over into the nighttime hours after we wake. Our thoughts then prevent us from getting back to sleep.

This runaway brain activity can be controlled, so that we can get back to sleep. To do it requires some effort but also requires a game plan that we can depend on. Since we sleep in cycles (Figure 2-1) of vary sleep depth — as many as five cycles each night — when we surface, we may actually wake, and then our thoughts may waylay us and not allow us to get back to sleep. If we do this repeatedly over several nights, it changes our sleep propensity curve and contributes to reinforcing the sleep disturbance. We are then destined to repeat that scenario night after night.

This is a solvable problem. The problem originates in the period of time between being awake and being asleep, which is called “sleep onset” but also goes by the term “hypnagogia.” Hypnagogia generally lasts only five or ten minutes, but it has distracting influences that can lead you off the trail to sleep and onto a diversionary track of problem solving or worrying, as well as other mental activities that have nothing to do with sleep.

How do we solve this problem?

The solution is to provide a mental activity that is conducive to sleep, one that keeps you on the straight-and-narrow path and won’t allow you to participate in the activities that prevent sleep. I call this corrective mental activity the Transition Trek. I provide detailed instructions on how to do this in In Pursuit of Sleep, Chapter 4 Charging the Gates of Slumberland.