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There’s a Reason You May Be Feeling Tired All the Time

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

During the recent Easter and Passover holidays, I spoke to several women in their late 60s about the wonderful times we had with family and friends.  Aside from enjoying the grandchildren and their parents, all had the same comment.  “I’m exhausted.” 

The women weren’t sure how many more years they could have the Sunday Easter Egg Hunt and dinner for 20, or the Passover Seder for 22.    They commented, “This wasn’t so exhausting five years ago… Am I tired because of my age?”  The question may resonate with many of us.

In a Harvard Medical School Special Health Report on “Boosting Your Energy,” the authors address the subject of energy, fatigue and aging.  Much of the information for this column is based on that report.

Here’s a little history.  The view and acceptance of fatigue has changed over time.  In medieval writings, fatigue was often considered positive, a sign that a person had reached his or limit and just needed to rest.

More recently, fatigue is considered a state to be avoided. The denial of fatigue became popular during the U.S. industrialization period, a time when we had an endless demand for high-performing “indefatigable” factory workers.  Further interest in fatigue grew during World War I as the military wanted to increase productivity of munitions factories.  The focus changed from physical to mental fatigue as the military had more tasks that required “sustained mental alertness,” such as piloting airplanes and operating radar.

Moving to the present, a universal complaint of mid-life and older adults is that they don’t have as much energy compared to their younger years.  Many cannot stay up late and still function well the next morning.  Some say they aren’t as strong as they used to be and cannot move as fast as before.

Although increased fatigue is not inevitable with age, we know certain age-related factors can lead to feeling tired:

Circadian changes (changes in a rhythm of biological functions occurring in a 24-hour periodic cycle): Circadian cycles change, making us fall asleep early and get up early; they disturb sleep rhythms.  In general, older persons spend less time in deep sleep, the most important type of sleep to restore energy.  Also, melatonin levels decline with age and disappear in older age.  With less of it, it is harder to fall asleep and is one reason that insomnia is more prevalent in older persons.

Physical changes:
The onset of menopause can create fatigue because of hot flashes that can disturb women’s sleep.

Another physical change affecting energy is the loss of muscle mass.  By age 70, we’ve lost about 30 percent of the muscle mass we had at age 20.  That decrease translates into decreased strength and increased fatigue when trying to do the same amount of activity from 10 or 15 years ago.  Ligaments and joints get stiffer, too, causing slower movements. It just takes more energy to do what we’ve always done.

Here’s the good news:  We can compensate for the loss through exercise allowing us to maintain strength and flexibility.

With physical decline, some feel a decline in their mental energy. We may have a harder time concentrating and find that it takes a longer to learn new things.  These changes often reflect age-related chemical changes in the brain that affect memory and learning.

More good news:  We can slow down this process by staying mentally engaged by learning something new, working crossword puzzles, playing bridge and other similar activities.

Lifestyle Factors: Those with caregiving responsibilities often have responsibilities for partners or aging parents.  Doctor appointments, grocery shopping, food preparation, managing the medical care and attending to personal needs can be exhausting.

And then there’s just plain overwork.   In a 2004 study, researchers reported one in three employees in the U.S. was chronically overworked.  Many women were overworked, serving a second work shift at home.  Going to bed late and getting up early becomes the norm ? and there goes the seven to eight hours of needed sleep.

For many of us, having a little less energy is something we may have to get used to, but perhaps not for long. New evidence of lifestyles that maximize energy are emerging  such as controlling stress, exercising regularly, getting a better night’s rest and eating high energy foods.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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