Sleep: It’s More Elusive as We Get Older

Posted on April 27, 2019

If someone tells you older people need less sleep than younger people do, don’t believe it. Older Americans need about eight hours of sleep, just like everybody else. What’s different is quality sleep is harder to come by as you age. There are a lot of reasons for it and you may be affected by more than one.

In The Science of Sounder Sleep, Ronda Kaysen explains, “In our 50s our ability to produce melatonin, a powerful sleep hormone, may begin to slow. And our circadian clock, the internal meter that tells us when to go to bed and when to get up, often shifts earlier when we age, sending us to bed in the early evening and awakening us in the early hours…

So, how do we make up for lost sleep time? Here are a few suggestions from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Be conscious of what you eat and drink. Consuming large or heavy meals, spicy foods, or caffeine close to bedtime can make sleep less restful. Also, while alcohol may make you tired enough to fall asleep, it is likely to affect the quality of your slumber during the night.
  • Exercise regularly, but not before bedtime. It’s clear physical activity is good for your health. It can also help you sleep more soundly and can reduce insomnia. A brisk morning walk or an afternoon workout will do the trick. Just don’t exercise too close to bedtime because that can keep you awake.
  • Stick with a sleep routine. While it may be tempting to binge-watch your favorite show until you feel tired, sticking with the same routine every day will help your body’s internal clock normalize, and that can help you sleep better.
  • Take time to wind down. Make sure your routine includes an activity or two that induces relaxation. Take a warm bath, read a book (paper version), or play soothing music that lulls you to sleep. Reading, watching, or playing on bright screens should not be part of this routine. Bright screens can suppress the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy.
  • Talk to your doctor. The inability to get a good night’s sleep may be a side effect of the medications you take or it could signal an underlying health issue. Keep a journal of your sleep patterns and share any concerns with your doctor.

Sleep has been studied for decades. Many have come to the conclusion it’s as important to health and well-being as diet and exercise. Jeanne Duffy, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a sleep researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, summed it up like this, “We used to think that sleep just made you feel better mentally…But as more and more research has been done on sleep, we now recognize it’s important for many aspects of both physical health and mental health.”

The bottom line is sleep is important for your mind and body at every age. If you aren’t sleeping well, document what’s happening, and see a professional.


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