DID you know as we age, our sleep patterns change?

While most people sleep 7-9 hours a day, older people are more likely to split this time between a night-time sleep and a daytime nap (the famous ‘Nanna Nap’).

About one third of older women and one in six older men take more than half an hour to get to sleep at night, wake more and spend less time in deep and refreshing sleep.

Why do older people sleep differently?

Older people make less of the hormone melatonin, which helps us get to sleep.

Things like hot flushes, needing to go to the toilet or pain from problems like arthritis can also make it hard to sleep through the night.

Disorders like sleep apnoea and periodic limb movement disorder are also more common as we age.

Dementia and wakefulness

Anxiety and depression can also affect sleep, as can dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

People with dementia might become more confused at night and could wander around the house, which can be a worry for carers.

On the flipside, poor sleep can also lead to increased forgetfulness and confusion and depression.

Insufficient sleep can also lead to serious health problems, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight problems, and breast cancer in women.

How do you know when you have a sleep problem?

Issues like wanting to go to bed earlier or needing to stay in bed longer to get a full night’s rest are normal as you age.

At any age, it’s also common to experience occasional sleep problems.

However, if you experience any of the following symptoms on a regular basis, you may be dealing with a sleep disorder:

  • Have trouble falling asleep even though you feel tired
  • Have trouble getting back to sleep when awakened
  • Don’t feel refreshed after a night’s sleep
  • Feel irritable or sleepy during the day
  • Have difficulty staying awake when sitting still, watching television, or driving
  • Have difficulty concentrating during the day
  • Rely on sleeping pills or alcohol to fall asleep
  • Have trouble controlling your emotions

What can I do?

In many cases, sleep problems can be easily addressed by making changes to your lifestyle including diet, physical activity and getting enough time in the sun.

Top tips include:

  • Naturally boost your melatonin levels. Artificial lights at night can suppress your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. Use low-wattage bulbs where safe to do so, and turn off the TV and computer at least one hour before bed.  
  • Exercise regularly – Studies have shown aerobic exercise had the best results and resulted in the most dramatic improvements in quality of sleep for middle aged and older people.
  • Don’t read from a backlit device at night (such as an iPad). If you use a portable electronic device to read, use an eReader that is not backlit, i.e. one that requires an additional light source.
  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool, and your bed is comfortable. Noise, light, and heat can cause sleep problems. Try using a sleep mask to help block out light.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex. By not working, watching TV, or using your computer in bed, your brain will associate the bedroom with just sleep and sex.
  • Move bedroom clocks out of view. The light can disrupt your sleep and anxiously watching the minutes tick by is a surefire recipe for insomnia.

Sometimes, making changes to your bedtime routine can also help.

Try to:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, even on weekends.
  • Block out snoring. If snoring is keeping you up, try earplugs, a white-noise machine, or separate bedrooms.
  • Go to bed earlier. Adjust your bedtime to match when you feel like going to bed, even if that’s earlier than it used to be.
  • Develop soothing bedtime rituals. Taking a bath, playing music, or practicing a relaxation technique such as meditation or deep breathing can help you wind down. 
  • Limit sleep aids and sleeping pills. Many sleep aids have side effects and are not meant for long-term use. Sleeping pills don’t address the causes of insomnia and can even make it worse in the long run.
  • Combine sex and sleep. Sex and physical intimacy, such as hugging, can lead to restful sleep.

If you have trouble getting back to sleep at night after you wake, try:

  • Don’t stress. Stressing over the fact that you can’t get back to sleep only encourages your body to stay awake. Focus on the feelings and sensations in your body instead.
  • Make relaxation your goal, not sleep. Try a relaxation technique such as deep breathing or meditation, without getting out of bed. Although not a replacement for sleep, relaxation can still help rejuvenate your body.
  • Do a quiet, non-stimulating activity. If you’ve been awake for more than 15 minutes, get out of bed and do a non-stimulating activity, such as reading a book.
  • Postpone worrying. If you wake during the night feeling anxious about something, make a brief note of it on paper and postpone worrying about it until the next day when it will be easier to resolve.

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