Restless nights, early waking, and trouble falling asleep are common complaints after age 50. Sleep issues seem to worsen. Yet, sleep needs don’t change for older adults. The body still needs an average of seven to eight hours of sleep. However, it seems to be more of a challenge to get it.
You transition through five sleep stages throughout the night. As you age, the body transitions between stages more quickly. The sudden shift can be abrupt enough to wake up. This often leads people to feel as though they’ve been awake for longer periods because the transitions rouse them more than they used to. Other changes to the sleep cycle include the amount of time you spend in each stage. Those over 50 spend less time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the active dream stage.
Older adults experience more insomnia, snoring, and sleep disorders like sleep apnea, too. Along with age, comes the potential for more health conditions that could require prescription medications. Their side effects can further interfere with sleep. Even poor eyesight can change the nature of the sleep cycle. Altogether, there’s a long list of possible sleep disruptors.
You may not be able to stop aging, but you can maintain the quality of your sleep. It takes careful, daily effort.
Start with consistency. The human body runs and thrives off of patterns that repeat in regular 24-hour cycles. Go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time every morning. The circadian rhythms, which control the timing of the sleep cycle, can get out sync with the Earth’s day pattern. Sticking to a regular bedtime can retrain the brain and stabilize the sleep cycle.
Make sure you’re getting plenty of natural light. Your eyes have special photoreceptors that absorb blue spectrum light from the sun. That light travels directly to the circadian region of the brain and suppresses sleep hormones during the day. As light fades, sleep hormones are released, and the sleep cycle begins.
With age, the eyes dim and less light reaches the circadian region, which can cause daytime sleepiness and nighttime wakefulness. Plenty of outside time can help, but might not be enough. Bright light therapy is an option for those whose eyesight has diminished. With this therapy, you spend time each morning under a special light bulb that mimics sunlight. It increases light exposure and helps regulate circadian rhythms.
In the bedroom, comfort can be an issue. Chronic pain or joint stiffness may make it difficult to rest. Different types of mattresses offer different kinds of support from those that target specific sleep positions to those that support larger body types. Check to see if your mattress has enough support for your body and preferred sleep position. Back and stomach sleepers will need more support than side sleepers. Side sleepers may require a softer mattress that conforms to the curvature of the spine.
Take a good look at what else could be getting in the way of your sleep. Stress can be a major factor. Lifestyle changes like retirement, financial strain, loss of a spouse or loved one, or diminishing mobility could contributing to stress. Meditation is a simple, easy way to manage stress, and it can easily be done before bed. It’s been shown to lengthen the amount of time you spend in REM sleep while strengthening the connection between the emotion and logic centers of the brain. Add it into your nightly routine or start your day with some deep breathing exercises.
You don’t have to accept poor sleep as part of aging. It might take more careful strategizing and thought than it once did to get adequate sleep. Build healthy sleep habits into your lifestyle to get the deep, restful sleep you need.