How can I tell if my complaints are a consequence of aging or an actual problem?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Every time I complain about a new medical issue, my husband says, "You're 84. What do you expect?" How do I know if my complaints are just a consequence of aging or if there's an actual problem?

DEAR READER: I'm not 84, but I ask myself that question regularly. You don't have to be a doctor to understand that new symptoms develop as we age. But some changes aren't a normal part of the aging process. I'll discuss some common age-related health changes, as well as changes that suggest there might be a problem.

Is it dangerous to sleep too much?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've heard a lot about the harmful effects of insufficient sleep. But are there any dangers of sleeping too much?

DEAR READER: Over the years we've learned that sleep is important for a variety of reasons. It appears to be vital for forming long-term memories. It also helps you to digest what you have learned the previous day. Sleep promotes concentration and restores energy; it helps to keep your immune system functioning well and to regulate eating patterns.

What will happen during laboratory sleep testing?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My doctor thinks I may have sleep apnea, and he wants me to go to a sleep lab to be tested. What will happen during the testing?

DEAR READER: Sleep apnea is a serious health condition in which breathing stops or becomes shallower. In the most common form, obstructive sleep apnea, the tongue or throat tissues temporarily and repeatedly block the flow of air in and out of your lungs. This can happen hundreds of times each night. Laboratory sleep tests are the most reliable way to diagnose this problem.

Do natural sleep aids work?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm 71 years old and have trouble sleeping. I don't want to take sleep drugs, but I'm interested in supplements and natural treatments. Do they work?

DEAR READER: I understand your concern about conventional sleep medicines. Several widely used medicines have been discovered to have important side effects years after they were first approved for use.

How can I help my son sleep better?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My 6-year-old son just can't seem to fall asleep at night. He doesn't fuss -- he just doesn't get enough sleep. Is there anything I can do?

DEAR READER: Kids can have many different kinds of sleep problems. Like your son, they can have trouble falling asleep. Other kids may fall asleep promptly, but awaken repeatedly. Others may snore or have breathing problems during sleep. Still others may have abnormal movements during sleep.

Can I do anything to prevent nightmares?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Is there anything I can do to stop having terrible nightmares? They scare me, and ruin my sleep.

DEAR READER: There may be something you can do. The first thing you should know is that everyone has nightmares occasionally. That includes yours truly. Just as we don't really know why we sleep, we don't really understand nightmares. We also don't know why some people are more likely to have them.

How much sleep do I really need?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Between my young kids and a full-time job, I'm lucky if I manage five hours of sleep per night. My husband says I'm running on empty. How much sleep do I really need?

DEAR READER: You're not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of adults sleeping fewer than six hours per night has increased by 31 percent since 1985. I spoke to my colleague Dr. Stuart Quan, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. He noted the many negative consequences of insufficient sleep.

Will a special pillow or other sleep adjustments improve my neck pain?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I tend to have a lot of neck pain. Would it help to buy a special pillow, or make any other adjustments to the way I sleep?

DEAR READER: As with so many things, an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure when it comes to neck pain. And how you sleep at night can make a big difference. Two sleeping positions are easiest on the neck: on your side or on your back. Whichever you prefer, choose an appropriate pillow. If you sleep on your back, choose a rounded pillow to support the natural curve of your neck, with a flatter pillow cushioning your head. You can achieve this by tucking a small neck roll into the pillowcase of a flatter, softer pillow.

How can I overcome insomnia without drugs?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I struggle with insomnia. How can I overcome this problem without drugs or supplements?

DEAR READER: Insomnia is a common problem in which sleepless nights turn into fatigue-filled days. A form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) known as CBT for insomnia, or CBT-I, targets the root cause of insomnia without medication. This short-term talk therapy teaches people to change unproductive thinking and behaviors that get in the way of a good night's sleep.

Do we need to sleep in order to “flush out” our brain?

DEAR DOCTOR K: A friend told me that the reason we sleep is to "flush out" our brain. What is this all about? Is this the reason we sleep?

DEAR READER: Many readers have written asking why we sleep, and we discussed it in yesterday's column. Today we will talk about the recent study that you are asking about, which suggests that one reason we sleep may be to flush out the brain. For those who didn't read yesterday's column, a quick summary. There is evidence that during sleep, our mind and body benefits in several ways. Perhaps most obvious, our muscles get a rest. The fortunate exception is the special muscle that is our heart. We don't want it to quit pumping -- ever!