There is one persistent myth about sleep that just won’t take a snooze – the older you get, the less sleep you need. Sleep requirements actually remain quite consistent throughout your lifetime, with experts recommending around seven to nine hours a night, regardless of age. And while you may need the same amount well into your 60s and 70s, a quality, uninterrupted night’s sleep may be harder to come by.
No matter how old you are, sleeping well is an essential part of overall health and emotional well-being. As most of us know, lack of sleep can make you feel worn out and irritable, impacting things like mental alertness and concentration. A full night’s sleep allows your body to repair any cell damage that occurred during the day, leaving you feeling refreshed and ready to go in the morning. That old adage about getting your beauty sleep is also true - a deep sleep can help repair skin cells as well.
In a recent population survey, 30 percent of older adults reported being dissatisfied with their sleep. Perhaps it’s because as we age, a number of sleep patterns begin to change. You may have a harder time falling and staying asleep. Many older adults don’t sleep as deeply, with less time spent in a deep, dreamless sleep and they wake up more often.
Older adults may also become sleepier earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning. As the protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea famously declares, “Age is my alarm clock. Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?” A lovely sentiment, but it’s more likely Santiago is waking up early because of age-related changes to his circadian rhythm (that internal clock which tells you when to go to bed and when to wake up).
Accepting your ‘new’ internal clock is one step to improving what experts call your sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is simply healthy sleep habits and lifestyle choices that contribute to a quality night’s sleep. It also means getting rid of habits that may be keeping you up. If you like watching late night TV for instance, you may want to rethink your bedtime routine - Seinfeld re-runs until 11 pm when your internal clock wants you asleep by 9:00 and up at 5:00 am may not be in your best interest. Other habits that contribute to poor sleep hygiene include eating a heavy meal or consuming coffee or alcohol in the evening, long daytime naps, watching TV in bed, or letting a restless pet sleep with you.
Trouble sleeping may also have an underlying cause – like a chronic medical condition. Things like pain from arthritis, asthma, heartburn, frequent urination, stimulating side-effects from medications and certain anxiety disorders can also keep you up at night. Treating these underlying conditions can often vastly improve sleep so it's important to discuss any issues with your healthcare provider. Some of the more serious sleep disorders like sleep apnea (where a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep) and restless leg syndrome (where a person’s limbs move sporadically in their sleep), should be diagnosed and treated by your doctor.
Here are some other helpful tips to improve your sleep hygiene:
- Maintain a sleep schedule and go to bed at the same time each night.
- Develop some bedtime rituals (try some deep breathing exercises, meditation or reading a few pages of a book) to help you relax and fall asleep more easily. An anxious mind will also have trouble falling asleep so try not to use bedtime as worry time.
- Move your bedroom clock out of view. Anxiously looking at the clock every few minutes will only compound your insomnia.
- And finally, consider the benefits of daily exercise. A recent study from Northwestern University in the United States showed that adults aged 55 and over who incorporated a 30 minute session of walking or using a stationary bike 4 times a week dramatically improved their sleep quality!
This article is meant to be informational in nature and should not replace the advice of a trained healthcare professional.