Sleep 101: How Aging Affects Sleep and How to Improve It
As we age, it is normal to experience changes to our sleep patterns, such as getting tired earlier, waking up earlier, and even increased awakenings in the middle of the night. Given these changes, it is not surprising that many have difficulty getting enough sleep. A good night’s sleep helps to improve concentration and memory, regenerates and repairs your body, and improves your immune system. Insufficient sleep can lead to daytime sleepiness, depression, memory problems and an increased risk of serious health problems (diabetes, health disease, obesity, cancer, etc.). While most healthy older adults still need 7-8 hours of sleep, how rested you feel in the morning is more important than a specific number of hours slept.
There are many habits, foods, exercise and medications that can have a drastic effect on your sleep quality. It is first important to understand the underlying causes of your sleep problems. Increasing your knowledge and the following tips can help you improve your sleep problems and get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep Cycle Explained:
Our body’s internal sleep clock, called our circadian rhythm, is regulated by hormones that help to control our sleepiness and alertness each day. In the morning when light hits our eyes, it causes our body to release serotonin, which makes us feel energized, alert and happy. Conversely, when it becomes dark, our bodies secrete melatonin, the hormone that helps us feel sleepy and regulates our sleep cycle. Our sleep cycle consists of 5 different stages. Stages 1-4 are categorized as ‘non-REM sleep’ that are characterized by progressively decreasing levels of brain activity and breathing as we go into a deeper sleep (stages 3&4). Stage 5, the last stage, is Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep or our dream sleep. Deep sleep, stages 3&4, is important for rest and recovery of our cells and our immune system, while REM “dream” sleep is essential for learning, memory, and your mood.
Our Sleep Cycle Changes with Age:
Throughout the night we cycle through the 5 stages of sleep repeatedly every 50-90 minutes in a zig-zag or lightning bolt pattern. It is the quality and depth of our sleep that unfortunately changes over time. As shown in the diagram below, as we age, we spend less time in deep sleep (stage 3&4) and a lot more time in light sleep (stage 1). As a result, we cycle through the sleep stages quicker and are prone to more nighttime awakenings.
What causes these changes to our sleep pattern you might ask? The answer to this question is multifaceted and can include factors such as a more sedentary lifestyle, prescription medications, daytime nappings, and lower levels of melatonin production as we age. To improve your sleep quality, it is important to understand what habits and factors can have a negative impact on your sleep. Generally, the more deep sleep we get the more likely we are to enter a longer and more fulfilled night’s sleep. Our focus for improving sleep quality needs to be centred around increasing the time we spend in deep sleep (regenerative sleep) and REM sleep (learning/memory sleep).
Tip for Getting Better Sleep:
- Avoid caffeine for at least 3 or 4 hours before bed: it is a stimulant that increases your alertness and blood pressure and can delay your ability to fall asleep.
- Keep all naps under 30 minutes: if you nap longer, you will enter deep sleep (stages 3&4- see diagram above) and make it difficult to fall asleep at your normal bedtime. Your body’s need to regenerate in deep sleep is what drives your urge to fall asleep at night. The more your body needs deep sleep, the quicker the onset and the longer your sleep will be.
- Exercise at moderate intensity 3-5 times a week: Moderate aerobic exercise such as walking or jogging is the most important factor that helps tire your body out and increases your need for more deep regenerative sleep. Exercise also helps you get more energized during the day and improves your overall health and immune system. Those who exercise regularly have significantly fewer incidences of insomnia or sleep disturbances.
- Do not exercise within 3 hours of your bedtime: This will release endorphins and make you more alert and can delay your sleep onset.
- Avoid screen time one hour before bedtime: devices such as televisions, cell phones and computers emit blue light, which when then enters our eyes, suppresses our production of melatonin and thus delays our sleepiness.
- Get into a regular sleep pattern: go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, it trains our bodies to fall asleep and wake up much easier
- Use the bed only for sleep or sexual activity.
Medications for sleep:
It is important to know which medications can help or harm your sleep quality. Combinations of medications can make the problem worse particularly if they are medications that can disrupt your deep (restorative) sleep or your REM (dream) sleep. If you have trouble sleeping it is best to review your medications with a knowledgeable pharmacist, they can help make suggestions on how to improve your sleep!
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