Sleep problems sometimes emerge with age. Older people might find that their good sleep habits of a lifetime are just not working any more. Keep reading to find out how and why sleep is different for older people, and most importantly learn some tips to help you sleep well.
How ageing creates sleep problems
Older people tend to need the same or slightly less sleep than younger adults. There is a lot of scientific debate around whether older people have different sleep needs or just different sleep patterns. As can be seen in the chart below from the National Sleep Foundation, after 65 years of age the recommended amount of sleep drops from 7-9 hours per night to 7-8.
The biggest changes occur in what the experts call ‘sleep architecture’, which basically refers to the structure of our sleep patterns. As we mature, it takes us longer to get to sleep than when we were younger. Ageing also causes a decrease in the deep phase of sleep. Older people will experience more light sleeping which means waking more easily and more frequently during the night. Other causes of night waking also grow more prevalent with age. These causes include getting up to urinate, anxiety, restless leg syndrome and discomfort from chronic illness. Unfortunately, insomnia is a side effect of some common prescription medications as well.
Consequently, older people can often feel fatigued during the day, and sometimes need to take a nap. So even though your sleep needs may be slightly less, you are more likely to feel tired. But getting quality sleep is just as important, or maybe more so than ever. Lack of sleep has been proven to increase the likelihood of developing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease.
Why do older people have insomnia?
Studies have found that adults start to lose the ability to get deep sleep as early as our mid-30s. As we age, the neurons and circuits in the brain that regulate sleep slowly degrade. This results in less deep, restorative sleep.
Research published in 2017 claims that it’s an important evolutionary task that keeps older people up at night. According to the study, in ancient times, the older adults slept lightly to be able to alert the others in their tribe to danger. This enabled the younger adults, who spent their days hunting and gathering, to get the deep sleep they needed. This could also explain why ageing causes a disruption in people’s circadian rhythm. Evidence shows that younger adults tend to be night owls and older adults tend to be early risers. This minimises the amount of time when the whole tribe is asleep, in turn keeping them safer.
However, unless you live in a cave, chances are this evolutionary hangover is not serving you anymore. There are things you can do to improve your sleep quality, and subsequently your overall health.
Tips to help you sleep well
• Keeping a routine is the key to good sleep. As much as possible, go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Doctors have found that this can help with mental health as well.
• Spend time outdoors during the day to get exposure to natural light. Some research suggests that older people may not make sleep hormones as easily as young bodies. The best way to combat this is to absorb sunlight during the day and stay away from bright light sources after sundown.
• Try some moderate exercise in the afternoon (but not immediately before bed). This does not need to be a trip to the gym. Do something you enjoy – play tennis with friends or walk your dog.
• Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening. These drinks affect your ability to get to sleep and get quality, deep sleep. Try herbal tea as a lovely relaxing night time drink. Rooibos is a delicious caffeine-free tea and has a high nutritional value as well.
• Keep a pen and notebook beside your bed. While we are going to sleep or during the night, our brains often remember things or realise answers to questions. Write anything you want to remember down on your notepad and give your mind permission to forget it.
• You might assume that poor sleep is a normal part of ageing. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Talk to your doctor about natural ways you can improve your sleep and start taking steps to gain control of your sleep health.