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Perchance to dream.


Quick--name the single most time-consuming activity in our lives. By the time we reach the "threescore and ten" mark, we will have been asleep for a cumulative period of as much as 20-25 years. We can't get along without it, yet it often eludes us. How much do we really know about this biological process?

A single cup of regular coffee at dinner is enough to keep some persons awake for hours after going to bed, but what can we do to induce sleep? Most of the time-honored remedies--brandy or a glass of warm milk at bedtime, an exercise program, a hot shower, a cigarette--are about as useful as Mark Twain's advice to "try lying on the end of the bed--then you might drop off." Although food may tend to induce sleep in the middle of the day, it is more likely to keep one awake when taken at bedtime, as are the other alleged remedies. Better to try reading, counting sheep, or any other activity that tends to take the mind off the cares of the day. Fortunately, most of us don't need any inducement--when bedtime arrives, sleep follows quickly.

Getting enough sleep can be a problem--but what is enough? During the growing-up, school and working years, the traditional eight hours seems to be reasonable for most persons, but older persons may require less. Daytime napping becomes more frequent in advancing years, but a tendency to sleep frequently or at length during the day before age 70 should be a cause for seeking medical advice.

Waking during the night and having difficulty getting back to sleep can also be a distressing problem. All of us experience waking up at some time during the night, and, as we get older, these episodes increase greatly--from a dozen or so times in young adulthood to as many as 100 or more times in the advanced years. Thankfully, most of these episodes are "microarousals" that occur when we are not even conscious. Respiratory problems are responsible for most sleep disturbances in older persons. Apnea, a cessation of breathing that may last from ten seconds to as much as a minute, is the most common of these respiratory problems; its severe form, sleep apnea, may require surgical intervention to correct its underlying cause. Sleep medications are big business these days, but even over-the-counter preparations should be used only upon a physician's advice.
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Title Annotation:sleep's biological process
Publication:Medical Update
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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