By: Helen Beaman
Humans spend approximately one-third of their lives sleeping or trying to, at least. Insufficient sleep has been recognized, in recent years, as a public health concern, and not getting enough sleep is linked with a variety of serious health problems. A common myth is that we need less sleep as we age, but the truth is that older adults still need between 7-9 hours to feel their best. So is crummy sleep a normal part of aging? Let’s take a look at what normal versus not normal changes are, and what we can do to get the rest we need.
Several sleep-related changes are normal and can be expected to occur in later life. As we get older we will spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep, and less in the deeper stages of sleep. Another change involves circadian rhythm, our 24-hour body clock, that regulates our sleep and wake cycles. As we age, our circadian rhythm weakens and becomes disjointed. This contributes to feeling sleepy earlier and waking up earlier. Further, a decrease in nocturnal secretion of melatonin, our natural sleep hormone, also impacts our sleep cycle. These changes can make getting enough good-quality sleep challenging, but not impossible.
Some sleep changes that are not considered a normal part of aging include waking up feeling tired every day, or experiencing symptoms of disordered sleep. Insomnia, a common sleep disorder, affects nearly 45% of people 65 and older, with women experiencing it more often than men. Diagnostic hallmarks of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, inability to return to sleep after nighttime waking, and daytime fatigue or sleepiness. But enough about the problem, let’s look at what we can do to get those ZZZs.
The term sleep hygiene refers to a variety of practices and habits that are necessary to achieve better nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness. A good recommendation, when taking on any behavioral change is to work on implementing one modification at a time, and I advise selecting a change that you feel will be the easiest to implement. The idea behind going with low-hanging fruit, is to use early successes to build momentum for taking on more challenging changes as you progress.
- Be consistent: Wake up and go to bed at the same time. Even on weekends and when traveling.
- Establish a bedtime routine: A nightly routine serves to train your brain to know when it’s time to prepare for sleep. This could include reading a book or taking a warm bath at the same time each night.
- Smart napping: Keep naps short and early, 15-45 minutes, and aim for the early afternoon.
- Sleep-robbing substances: Limit or avoid nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine (coffee, tea, soda, chocolate). These substances can stay active in your system up to 8-14 hours after consumption.
- Create a sleep-conducive environment: Make your bedroom dark, cool, and relaxing. Remove electronic devices.
- Diet: Don’t go to bed hungry or overly full. Limit sugar and refined carbohydrates at dinner, and minimize liquid intake 1-2 hours prior to bedtime.
- Get worn out: Be sure to do activities that stimulate your mind and body throughout the day. This includes exercise and socializing.
- Stress management: Take care of stressors during the day so you aren’t kept awake worrying at night.
- Still struggling? See your doctor to discuss options for resolving your sleep issues. Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively, so schedule an appointment, and in the meantime, keep a sleep diary to give to your doctor.
Helen Beaman, MSW LCSW
Helen is the Mental Health Services Coordinator and Older Adult Behavioral Health Specialist for Linn and Benton Counties. She serves your communities through the Older Adult Behavioral Health Initiative of Oregon.