Are you finding it more difficult to get a good night’s sleep as you get older? If so, you have plenty of company.
It’s been estimated that up to 70% of older adults have chronic sleep problems. Many people struggle with sleeplessness for years.
So what about the common idea that older people don’t need to sleep as much?
It isn’t true. “Older adults need about the same amount of sleep as all adults, seven to nine hours each night,” says theNational Institute on Aging (NIA).
Learn why sleeping well is crucial to your health and why it becomes more difficult with age, along with tips that may make getting to sleep easier.
The Effects of Short Sleep
Brain function is tied to your sleeping patterns.
“Neurobiological processes that occur during sleep have a profound impact on brain health, and as a result, they influence mood, energy level and cognitive fitness,” saysMargaret O'Connor, PhD, ABPP, who teaches at Harvard Medical School. Studies have shown that brain changes during sleep “affect capacity for new learning, as well as the strength of memories formed during the day.”
Poor sleep can affect your cardiovascular system as well.
Adults over age 45 who sleep fewer than six hours a night have been found to be twice as likely to experience a stroke or heart attack as people who sleep six to eight hours nightly, regardless of age, weight, exercise habits and whether or not they smoke. Sleeplessness can also promote obesity, which itself is associated with heart problems.
An inability to sleep well has even been tied to the rate at which your body ages.
AUCLA research team asked 29 older people to have their sleep disrupted in a four-night study that included morning blood tests; these tests showed cellular changes linked to faster aging.
Why Sleep Becomes More Difficult as You Age
Why is poor sleep so common in older people? Researchers have found several reasons.
Aging Changes Sleep Patterns
Patterns of sleep and wakefulness are controlled by your body’scircadian rhythms, timing cycles that are also linked to functions such as blood pressure, bone remodeling and heart rate.
These rhythms tend to change with age, leading to changes in sleeping hours. As a result, “older people tend to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier than they did when they were younger,” says the NIA. Older people also tend to wake up more during the night and experience more daytime sleepiness.
In addition, aging alters how you progress through the various stages of sleep, which include light and deep sleep as well asrapid eye movement, or REM, sleep (the stage when dreaming occurs).University of Pennsylvania researchers have noted that deep sleep—the type required for repair of the body’s tissues, among other tasks—decreases with age.
Hormone Production and Your Body’s Master Clock
Circadian rhythms are controlled by a part of the brain called thesuprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. Aging-related changes in the SCN can disrupt these rhythms.
The SCN is synchronized to light coming in through the eyes, andevidence suggests that artificial light at night can disrupt this process. This disruption can, in turn, suppress release of a hormone calledmelatonin that plays a key role in regulating sleep.
According to the UPenn team, “Studies suggest that the age-related decline in melatonin secretion contributes to the increased sleep disruption in older adults.”
Other Factors in Poor Sleep: Illnesses, Medications and Lifestyle
Are you dealing with a chronic disorder or take a prescription medication (or several)? These can contribute to poor sleep.
O’Connor says that older people are more prone to conditions such as “sleep apnea, a medical condition characterized by loud snoring, breathing pauses during sleep and daytime fatigue.”
Problems such as leg restlessness and various sleep disorders also become more common with age, as does pain from conditions such as arthritis. Those extra nighttime trips to the bathroom don’t help, either.
In addition, the UPenn scientists note that roughly 67% of older people have multiple ailments such as diabetes, gastric reflux and heart or lung problems; more than a third take more than five medications on a regular basis. All of these conditions and many of the medications can make sleep more difficult.
Finally, the lack of daily structure than sometimes occurs when a person retires can create conditions that interfere with sleep.
While not true for every retiree, many people who leave the workforce have “more flexible sleep schedules (which can be be irregular) and more opportunities to nap during the day, are more sedentary and are less involved in social activity than they used to be,” says the UPenn team. Frequent naps, especially in the early evening, can make it more difficult to sleep at night.
Tips for Improving Your Sleep
If you suspect your medications may be contributing to excessive nighttime wakefulness, speak with your practitioner; if you snore or show other signs of apnea, discuss the idea of visiting a sleep lab.
In addition, O’Connor recommends using “a sleep diary to keep track of your sleep schedule for at least two weeks. This will provide objective information regarding the consistency of your sleep routine as well as the association between sleep and your level of alertness during the day.”
With that information in hand, you can make changes in the following areas.
Set Up Your Bedroom for Optimal Sleep
Changes you can make include the following:
- Keep things cool. Cooler temperatures promote sounder sleep: “A cool room with warm blankets is optimal for a good night’s sleep,” say the folks atHarvard Health.
- Remove electronics. Devices such as cell phones and tablets generate blue light, which interferes with sleepiness, and use of such devices tends to over-stimulate the mind. Get the TV out of the bedroom, too.
- Make your bed comfortable. Get the best-quality mattress and pillows you can afford; the feel should be supportive but not overly firm, especially if you suffer from neck, back or hip pain. It’s also worth the cost to get high-quality sheets and blankets.
- Reduce excessive light. Use heavy, light-blocking curtains if possible; if not, an eye mask may help. To block unwanted sounds, try using a white-noise machine.
Establish a Regular Sleep Routine
Find ways to program your body for sleep:
- Avoid excessive nighttime activity. Don’t use your bed to read, work, etc., and save any emotionally fraught discussions with your partner for the morning. As Harvard Health puts it, “Reserve your bed for sleep (and sex).”
- Sleep on a consistent schedule. Go to bed and get up at approximately the same time every day. Sleeping in on weekends in an effort to “catch up” on deficient sleep during the week sounds good in theory but doesn’t work in the long term.
- Create a sleep ritual. Do something relaxing before bed, such as engaging in meditation or gentle yoga, taking a bath or having a cup of herbal tea. (Gohere for yoga poses that help promote sleep.)
- Don’t toss and turn. “Only sleep when you are sleepy,” advises Harvard Health. “Do not spend too much time awake in bed.” If you wake during the night, get up and do something relaxing for 20 minutes, then try to get back to sleep.
Live a Sleep-Friendly Lifestyle
What you do during the day can have a significant effect on how well you sleep. To encourage nighttime sleepiness, do the following:
- Avoid excessive napping. If you absolutely need a nap, Harvard Health suggests taking it before 3 PM and keeping it to less than an hour.
- Avoid stimulants...This category includes anything with caffeine (coffee, tea, cola, chocolate) and tobacco.
- …And alcohol.While it may make you feel sleepy, alcohol disrupts the kind of deep, restful sleep you need to feel refreshed in the morning. Cut off your intake six hours before going to bed.
- Don’t drink water (or eat) late. To avoid nighttime bathroom trips, stop water intake within an hour or two of going to bed. And avoid eating large meals too close to bedtime; if you need a snack before bed, keep it light.
- Exercise, especially outside. Regular physical activity has been linked to better sleep. Just don’t exercise (gentle yoga or stretching excepted) too close to bedtime. If fact, getting out for a walk during the day lets you get both exercise and the daylight your brain needs to regulate your circadian rhythms.
- Change your diet. Some foods promote slumber: Cherries are a natural source of melatonin, bananas are a good source of muscle-relaxing potassium and magnesium, and walnuts containtryptophan, an amino acid that triggers sleepiness. (All are available in supplement form, either by themselves or as part of sleep-support supplements.*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.)
- Try aromatherapy. Some essential oils have a long history of use in promoting sleep including bergamot, lavender and sandalwood (learn morehere).
The information in this blog is provided for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for consultation with a doctor or qualified healthcare professional. Consultation with a doctor or qualified healthcare practitioner is strongly advised, before starting any regimen of supplementation, a change in diet or any exercise routine. Individuals who engage in supplementation to promote health, address conditions or support any structure or function of the body assume all risks. Women who are pregnant, especially, should seek the advice of a medical doctor before taking any dietary supplement and before starting any change in diet or lifestyle. Descriptions of herbs, vitamins, nutrients or any ingredients are not recommendations to take our products or those of any other company. We are not doctors or primary-source science researchers. Instead, we defer to the findings of scientific experts who conduct studies, as well as those who compile and publish scientific literature on the potential health benefits of nutrients, herbs, spices, vitamins or minerals. We cannot guarantee that any individual will experience any of the health benefits associated with the nutrients described. Natural Organics will not be held liable for any injuries, damages, hindrances or negative effects resulting from any reliance on the information presented, nor will Natural Organics be held accountable for any inaccuracy, miscalculation or error in the scientific literature upon which the information provided is based.
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.