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Aging and Sleep
by BetterSleep
Nov 14 2022 • 11 min read
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They say that sleep is the best medicine, and while that may be true for many things, it’s especially important as we age.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, people over the age of 65 need anywhere from 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. However, sleep deprivation is common in older adults, affecting as high as 46% of community-dwelling adults aged 65-74.

And while it may seem normal to wake up a few times during the night to visit the bathroom or get a drink of water, for some older adults, these frequent awakenings can lead to disturbed sleep and fatigue during the day.

There are also many things that can contribute to poor sleep as we age. Health conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Taking certain medications can also interfere with sleep.

The good news is that there are things you can do to help yourself or your aging loved one get a good night’s sleep. In this post, we’ll explore the connection between aging and sleep, and offer some tips for getting healthy sleep.

The Connection Between Sleep and Age

Sleep is essential for our physical and mental health, but especially as we get older. From infancy, sleep helps our brains to develop and grow. In adulthood, sleep allows us to consolidate memories and process new information.

If you’ve found that you don’t sleep as soundly as throughout your life, it may be because our sleeping patterns change with age. You might wake up more during the night, leading to insufficient sleep, or have trouble falling asleep initially.

Over the years, researchers have established that the sleep patterns of older adults are different from those of younger ones. They tend to sleep less overall and also spend less time in deep, restful sleep and more time in lighter sleep.

And while sleep is often known as a time when our bodies and minds rest and rejuvenate, researchers now know that sleep is also a time when our brains are very active. Let’s discuss this further below.

Sleep and our brains

Did you know that our brains are more active when we sleep than when we’re awake? It’s true! Sleep is vitally important for our brain health because it helps us to learn and remember things, as well as rest and repair ourselves.

When we sleep, our brains are able to get rid of all the toxins and waste products that have built up during the day. This helps to keep our brains healthy and functioning properly.

And then there’s the sleep cycle. During sleep, our brains go through four different stages of activity. These stages are important for different things, such as memory consolidation and repair.

The first stage of falling asleep is when our brains are just beginning to slow down. The second stage is when we’re in a light sleep, but with active brainwaves at a slower pace. In the third stage, we’re in deep sleep with brainwaves working at their slowest speed. Lastly, during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep in the fourth stage, our brainwaves are moving quickly again.

For older adults, these sleep cycles tend to be shorter and less restful. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important for older adults to get enough sleep. If you’ve ever been woken up from a deep sleep, you know how groggy and disoriented you can feel. That’s because our brains need time in the deep sleep stage to fully rest and recover. For older adults, deep sleep is especially important because it helps to reduce inflammation and promote tissue repair.

Below, we discuss some of the age-related things that can interfere with sleep and how we can build good sleep habits and good sleep hygiene, especially as we age.

How Aging Affects Sleep

In this section, let’s take a look at some of the most common factors that can affect sleep as we age.

Health conditions and sleep disorders

Many health conditions that are common in older adults can interfere with sleep. Arthritis, for example, can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep due to pain.

Diabetes can also disrupt sleep. This is because high blood sugar can cause frequent urination, which can lead to multiple trips to the bathroom during the night.

Heart disease, which is also common in older adults, can cause chest pain or irregular heartbeats, has been linked to sleep problems.

There are many other health conditions that can cause sleep problems, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obstructive sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome. REM sleep behavior disorder, which is characterized by acting out dreams during sleep, is also more common in older adults.

Certain medications

When we get older, we are more likely to take medications for various health conditions. These medications can sometimes cause side effects that interfere with sleep. Polypharmacy, which is the use of multiple medications, can also increase the risk of side effects.

For example, some blood pressure medications can cause nightmares or insomnia. Some antidepressants can cause vivid dreams or restless sleep. Some pain medications can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. And when taken together, certain medications can have a harmful effect on the quality of sleep.

If you’re taking medication that is causing sleep problems, talk to your doctor about changing the dose or switching to a different medication.

Lifestyle factors

There are many lifestyle factors that can affect sleep as we age. For example, older adults are more likely to have trouble sleeping or poor sleep if they:

  • Drink caffeine late in the day
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Drink alcohol
  • Exercise late in the day
  • Look at computers or phones before going to sleep

Older adults are also more likely to have trouble sleeping if they have an irregular sleep schedule or if they spend long periods of time sitting during the day.

Making changes to your lifestyle can help improve sleep. For example, if you drink caffeine late in the day, try to cut back or switch to decaffeinated beverages. If you smoke cigarettes, talk to your doctor about quitting. And if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.

One study also found that in older adults with cataracts, blocking blue light with special lenses improved sleep quality and reduced daytime sleepiness and dysfunction.

Older adults can also start working out during the day. However, don’t exercise too close to bedtime or it will be harder to fall asleep. And if you spend long periods of time sitting during the day, try to take breaks and move around every few hours.

Changes in sleep patterns

As we age, our bodies produce less melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Melatonin is linked to our circadian rhythms, letting us know when it’s time for bed and when to wake up. Our circadian rhythms, also known as our body clock, is a 24-hour cycle that regulates many functions in our bodies, including our sleep patterns.

As we age, our circadian rhythms become less regular, which can cause us to feel less sleepy at night and more awake during the day. This is why many older adults find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.

We also become more sensitive to light and noise as we age. This means that we’re more likely to be disturbed by bright lights and loud sounds when we’re trying to sleep.

Changes are normal as we age. However, there are some changes that can be a sign of a sleep problem. We’ve talked about some signs to look for in the section above, but let’s take a closer look at the most common symptoms of age-related sleep problems.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, look out for these symptoms:

Excessive daytime sleepiness

You can take naps during the day and still get a good night’s sleep. However, if you’re excessively tired during the day, it might be a sign of a sleep problem.

This is especially true if you’re finding it hard to stay awake during the day, even when you’re active. If you’re driving, for example, and you find yourself nodding off, this is a sign that you might have a sleep problem.

Trouble falling asleep

Insomnia is a common sleep problem in older adults. If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you might be dealing with insomnia. You may find yourself lying in bed for hours, trying to fall asleep but never feeling tired.

This can be frustrating and can make it hard to function during the day. If you’re dealing with insomnia, talk to your doctor.

Waking up frequently

If you wake up multiple times during the night, it can disrupt your sleep and make you feel exhausted during the day.

There are many reasons why you might wake up during the night. For example, you might need to urinate more frequently as you age. Or you might have a health condition that causes pain or discomfort.

Waking up frequently for one or two days is usually nothing to worry about. However, if it’s a regular occurrence, it might be a sign of a sleep problem.

Strange sounds and movements during sleep

If you find yourself snoring loudly or having pauses in your breathing during sleep, it could be a sign of sleep apnea or another sleep disorder. This type of sleep-disordered breathing can cause you to wake up frequently at night and struggle to get a good night’s rest.

Other strange sounds during sleep, such as grinding your teeth, might also be a sign of an underlying health condition.

Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) is a condition that causes involuntary movements of the legs during sleep. This can disrupt your sleep and cause you to feel tired during the day.

You may not be aware that you’re making noises or movements in your sleep, but chances are, your partner or roommate has noticed. If this sounds like something you’re experiencing, talk to your doctor.

Early morning awakening

Older adults tend to wake up earlier than they did when they were younger. This is normal and doesn’t usually cause problems.

However, if you find that you’re waking up much earlier than you used to and you can’t get back to sleep, it might be a sign of a sleep problem. For example, you may be used to waking up at 6am but now you’re awake at 4am, with no chance of going back to sleep.

You may be worried about age-related sleep problems. However, there are things you can do to improve your sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try these tips:

Stick to a routine

By following a regular sleep schedule, you can train your body to get the style of sleep it needs. Go to bed and wake up at set times every day - including weekends. Yes, we know this may sound easier said than done, but give it a go!

Create a relaxing bedtime routine

Relaxation doesn’t often come easy, especially when you’re trying to fall asleep. But a soothing bedtime routine can help your body and mind relax so you can drift off to sleep. Try taking a warm bath, reading a book, or listening to calming music before bed. Find what works for you and stick to it.

Replace your mattress

If you’ve had your mattress for more than 10 years, it might be time for an upgrade. A new mattress can make a big difference to your sleep. Look for a mattress that’s comfortable and provides the right level of support. For older adults, a medium-firm mattress is often the best option.

Cut down on caffeine

We all love our coffee, but too much caffeine can make it hard to sleep. Caffeine is a stimulant and can stay in your system for up to six hours. So if you’re having trouble sleeping, it might be worth cutting down on your coffee intake. You may replace your nightly cup of joe with decaf coffee or herbal tea instead.

Avoid alcohol before bed

It might seem like alcohol can help you sleep, but it actually disrupts your sleep. Alcohol is a depressant and can make you feel drowsy. But as it starts to wear off, it can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. If you want a drink before bed, stick to one or two glasses of wine.

Get regular exercise

Exercise is a great way to improve your sleep. It can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer. There are many types of exercise for older adults. For example, you could try walking, swimming, or Tai Chi. Many community centers offer exercise classes specifically for older adults.

Make your bedroom sleep-friendly

To create a sleep-friendly environment, start by making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool. Consider using blackout curtains or an eye mask to block out light. If noise is a problem, try using a white noise machine or earplugs. And if your bedroom is too warm, try using a fan or air conditioner.

See your doctor

If you’re still having trouble sleeping, it might be time to see your doctor. There are many potential causes of sleep problems. For example, you may have sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. Your doctor can help you identify the cause of your sleep problem and recommend treatment options.

Meditation for Older Adults: Benefits for Sleep

Meditation is a type of mindfulness. It involves focusing your attention on the present moment and letting go of your thoughts and worries. Meditation can help you relax and sleep better.

There are many different types of meditation. One type, called guided meditation, involves listening to a recorded voice that guides you through the process. Guided meditation can be a good option for older adults who are new to meditation.

There are many benefits of meditation for older adults, including:

  • Improved sleep quality
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Improved mood
  • Increased ability to focus
  • Improved memory

Below, we explore some of the ways meditation can help you sleep better.

Meditation can help you sleep faster and better

A study on mindfulness-based interventions and older adults’ sleep quality found that intervention can reduce short-term problems such as trouble falling asleep, as well as improve long-term daytime sleep-related issues.

Another study looked at the effects of a specific type of meditation called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on older adults with sleep problems. The findings from this study support the hypothesis that MBSR would be associated with improved sleep quality for older adults with moderate to high levels of sleep disturbance.

Meditation can reduce stress and anxiety

If you find it hard to sleep at night, stress and anxiety might be the root of your issue. Consider meditation as a way to ease these concerns. Through focusing on the present and learning not to dwell on worries, meditation can help reduce general stress and anxiety levels.

A study in Europe showed that traits such as stress, anxiety, depression and neuroticism are known risk factors for dementia. Indirect evidence from said study implies that meditation training for emotional and attentional regulation would benefit brain health in older age groups.

Meditate with BetterSleep: Get Started Today

If you’re ready to start reaping the benefits of meditation, sign up to BetterSleep today. Our app offers a variety of guided meditations, including ones specifically designed to help you sleep better. And if you’re new to meditation, don’t worry – our app is designed to be user-friendly and easy to follow.

You can choose from a variety of sounds and mix and match them to create your perfect sleep environment. You can also set a timer to ensure you don’t meditate for too long. If you feel intimidated by the idea of meditating on your own, you can also use our app with friends or with a loved one.

Our users have benefited from improved sleep quality, reduced stress and anxiety levels, and an overall improved sense of well-being. Why not give it a try today? Our promise to you is that you won’t regret it.

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