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Does sleep change when you age?

19-04-2015

Does sleep change when you age?

You are getting older... it is a sad fact of life. Until they find the fountain of youth or some other elixir that is able to keep us eternally young we will just keep getting older, second by second, hour by hour, day by day. There are many things that change as you age, you get wiser (hopefully!), you develop smile and frown lines (more of the former than the latter, hopefully!), you find some things harder to do and some things easier to do and you may very well struggle to get enough sleep.

Sleep, the curse of old age
Yes, sleep is not something that you get better at as you age. Sadly, it can become something that you struggle with. There is a myth that you do not need as much sleep as you get older but this is not true. The problem is that sleep becomes more difficult, the reason people sleep less as they get older is that they cannot sleep as easily, not because they do not need it. In fact, as we age we need the recuperative and healing powers of sleep even more than ever so it really is important that we try to sleep as much as we can when we are old.
Changing sleep patterns

It is fairly obvious that we go through changing sleep patterns as we grow older. Young babies need up to 18 hours of sleep every single day, then as they get older this drops dramatically. Teenagers then have a raise in sleep requirements, something any parent will intuitively know. After this, the average adult will sleep for about the same amount each night from their late teens into their forties, when most people start to find sleep somewhat harder to come by than they did when they were younger. The Golden Years are not the Sleeping Years, though they can be if you actively make the right changes to your life to ensure that you get enough shut eye.

The importance of sleep when you age

So for a long time sleep was seen in a mechanistic fashion, it was basically viewed as the body’s way of recharging the batteries. Now we have a far better understanding of what sleep is and what it does. Gone is the narrow mechanistic understanding of sleep. We now know that sleep fulfils a number of vital roles in our physical and psychological wellbeing, it is vital in everything from cell regeneration to cleansing out the toxins that build up in our brain, it is essential in memory retention and in appetite regulation. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that sleep is one of the most important physiological functions we have and that ensuring you get enough of it each night is essential.

But how much do you really need?

What is even more dramatic is how even just an hour less than your normal and healthy amount can have a range of negative impacts. Yes, just one hour less than regular and you can start suffering a number of short and long term issues. The short term ones are fairly obvious, irritable, emotional, clumsy and all the rest. These all kick in even after just one hour less. But over time, if you are getting an hour less most nights, there are also a huge number of long term harms that can occur, right up to premature death. There are actually so many issues that can happen due to long term sleep deprivation that we cannot list them all, but suffice to say that they are not good and range from Alzheimer’s through to obesity, from depression through to heart failure.

Why do we find it harder to sleep as we get older?

There are a number of reasons that we find it harder to sleep as we get older.

Sleep architecture: You may wonder what sleep architecture is, but the term really just refers to all the aspects of your sleep, from the hormones used to make you tired to the stages of sleep. Scientists are unsure of why our sleep architecture changes as we age but they know that it does. In fact, there seems to be a number of changes that occur as we grow older, including different amounts of the sleep hormone melatonin and less REM sleep each night. However, as with much preliminary scientific research, at this point they are not sure whether these are the causes of age related sleep problems or simple the symptoms of some as yet unknown factor. What they do know is that when they study older people they find that almost all the aspects of sleep architecture are different.

Change in life: Another factor that many scientists and sleep researchers point at is that there are a number of life changes that occur as we get older that may make sleeping more difficult. These range from the loss of movement that makes it harder to get tired through to the death of someone you love, which can cause stress which can make it harder to get to sleep. There are many changing aspects of life, especially when you retire.

Medical conditions: Another aspect of aging are the medical conditions that come with growing older. These are things like arthritis, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome, which can all make getting to sleep a lot more difficult. Many of these medical conditions are chronic and this means that night after night you may struggle to get to sleep and to stay asleep.

Illness: As well as medical conditions there are also many more illnesses that you may come down with when you are old.  Things like heart failure, arthritis, heartburn, an enlarged prostate, or Alzheimer's disease can all make it much harder to get to sleep.
Medications: As you get older you will also find that you are taking more medications, often for the above conditions and illnesses mentioned. The thing is that many of these medications can play havoc with your sleep. Make sure that you talk to your doctor about all of the sleep related side effects of any medication that you are taking.

So what can you do to sleep better in your old age?

This is the million dollar question. What can you do to sleep better? Well sadly there is no million dollar answer, but there are  a number of smaller things that you can do.

Make your room into the best sleep environment: One of the keys to getting a good sleep is to be in a great space for it. You want your room to be dark, quiet and well ventilated. Even a small amount of light or noise can disturb your sleep so make sure you have it as dark and quiet as you can. You may even want to use ear plugs and a face mask if you find that these are problematic and you cannot resolve it.

Make sure your bed is comfortable: Sleeping on a good bed is always important, but when you are older and your body is not as good at supporting itself and things feel more uncomfortable, you really need to invest in a good bed, you want something that delivers the perfect balance of comfort and support, something that will cradle you throughout the night.

Eat and drink the right things: There are lots of foods and drinks that you can have that will help you sleep. Luckily they are the same things that are good for you in general, things like dairy products, nuts, bananas and cherries, chamomile tea and a range of other healthy items all have sleep inducing properties.

Get exercise regularly: When you retire you often become less active and the less active you are the harder you find it is to get to sleep. That is why you need to try to get out and about as often as you can. Exercise each day and you will find that you are able to sleep easy at night. Make sure you do not exercise at night as this can make it harder to drop off.

Take natural sleep supplements: While your medications may keep you awake you will find that there are some great natural sleep supplements that will help you sleep. There are a range of these supplements, but the best ones are Valerian root, melatonin and kava. All three of these have been proven to help you sleep so give them a shot.

Conclusion

The key is to try and find a balance, if you are not getting enough sleep each night you should try all of the above to see what works. Some people find that changing their room is enough, while others need to drastically alter their diet or daily habits. Keep working at it as sleep really is important and your Golden Years will be made that much better if you can sleep well each night.

Good luck and good night!


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