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 helps 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, letting your pet sleep with you and using bedtime as worry time. An anxious mind will have trouble falling asleep.
Anne Blair is a retired nurse who has always maintained good sleep hygiene. At 80, she is the poster girl for aging well and gives a good night’s sleep some of the credit. Anne is an active volunteer with Victoria Lifeline. She also loves to travel and recently went on a trip to Vietnam with friends. “And I’ve always been a good sleeper. I have a routine - I read for 20 minutes then turn out the light and fall asleep. A well-rested mind is so important.” Anne first established her bedtime routine to help quiet an over-active mind. “Once my mind got going, it was hard to fall asleep.”
While Anne was able to establish her own good sleep hygiene practices, others may need the help of a healthcare provider. Trouble sleeping often has an underlying cause – chronic medical conditions. 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. 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.
So before you go to the pharmacy for an over the counter sleeping pill, check in with your healthcare provider. Also, look for ways to improve your sleep hygiene – maintain a sleep schedule, go to bed earlier if necessary, develop some bedtime rituals (try some deep breathing to relax, or read a few pages of a book) and 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. Anne Blair is a member of the University of Winnipeg Fitness Centre and attends a weekly fitness class. She also does some light weight lifting. “I feel good when I’m finished exercising. It probably keeps me out of the hospital,” Anne joked. “And makes for a good night’s sleep as well!”