HOW TO BATTLE THE EFFECTS OF AGING ON SLEEP
READ TIME: 6 MINUTES
You snooze you lose!
Or is it, when you don’t snooze you lose?
Regardless, we spend one-third of our lives sleeping. So why don’t we give it the credit it’s due?
Take a trip down memory lane for a minute.
When we’re born, our exhausted parents pray for sleep so they can maybe squeeze in an hour or two. As we grow into toddlers, our parents covet those afternoon naps because it means they get a minute or two to rest. For many, we remember taking naps in kindergarten, but once we grow out of designated nap time, sleeping in or sleeping during the day is taken as a sign of laziness.
In middle school and high school, we come home from school, practice, games, and hanging out with friends to hit the books for homework, staying up until midnight. The weekends and breaks roll around and parents have us up for chores and to keep us from sleeping the day away.
Being used to this lack of sleep comes in handy in college as we try to “train” our bodies to function on small amounts of sleep. We carry this into our careers, staying late at the office to come home and work some more. And then we have our own children. But it’s okay because “we can sleep when we’re dead.”
Catching up on sleep works in small doses. Waiting until retirement to catch up on the sleep you skipped in your 20s and 30s is a lost cause.
Think about it.
Babies sleep 16-19 hours a day while their bodies and brain experience necessary development. School-age children and teenagers need approximately nine hours of sleep. Adults need 7-9 hours.
If we valued sleep throughout our lives as much as our parents did during the first 5-7 years of our lives, we just might be able to overcome some of the challenges of sleeping as we age.
Before we can truly appreciate the value of sleep, we need to know why sleep is important.
As we sleep, our body temperature lowers and our heart-rate slows. Our body goes into such a relaxed state throughout the night that:
- Blood supply to muscles increases
- Tissues experience growth and repair
- Energy is restored to the brain and body
- Hormones like cortisol (stress/alarm system) and somatotropin (growth) are released
Not only does it promote growth and recovery, sleep boosts our immune system, helps retain important memories, and regulates our appetites.
If you’ve ever wondered why your doctor instructs you to rest when you aren’t feeling well, or why you find yourself hungry when you’re tired, it’s because sleep is more than just entering a dream world.
Over time, those nights of little sleep can add up and have an adverse effect on our health. Research has shown a link between lack of sleep and high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, and more.
Scientists are currently looking for a correlation between sleep and dementia, asking, “Does a lack of sleep increase a person’s risk for dementia, or does dementia make it difficult to sleep?”
Need more convincing that sleep is important to your ability to live a healthy life?
Not getting enough sleep during flu season can put you at risk of catching the virus, even if you’ve had the shot. While you’re “catching Zs,” the cytokines protein is produced and released. Cytokines fight infection and inflammation, so, essentially, a lack of sleep weakens your immune system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults 65 years+ and residents of nursing homes are at a greater risks for experiencing a serious illness as a result of the flu.
Diabetes – specifically Type 2 – is another risk of not getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep forces your body to release more of the stress hormones (cortisol is one) during the day to help you stay awake, but too much can prevent insulin regulating your body’s blood sugar levels. A decrease in insulin means an increase of sugar in your bloodstream, causing diabetes and an increased risk for heart disease later in life.
So how do you improve sleep when it naturally decreases as you age?
Sometimes getting more sleep is easier said than done. Our bodies magically need less sleep, quite the contrary (remember, people 60 and older need 7-9 hours a night). Changes in daily habits throw routine out the window. If anything, growing older means we need to be more proactive about ensuring each night brings a restful sleep.
Here are a few tips to help get your body’s days and nights back on track so you can start sleeping your way to a healthier you.
- Set a routine, especially after retiring. Making sure you go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day can help your body get into a rhythm. This also means you need to create a pre-sleep bedtime routine to help your body wind down – read a book, take a bath, pick up items off the floor and put them away. You’ll want to do this routine one-to-two hours before bed.
- Exercise. Whether it’s early morning, afternoon, or evening, some form of exercise, as little as 10 minutes a day, can help your body relax in the evening. As we get older, we might not be able to exercise the same way we did when we were in our 20s or 30s, but even something as simple as walking, jogging, or swimming can have a major impact on our sleep.
- Make it colder. As we sleep, our body temperature drops. A cooler room can help make falling asleep and staying asleep easier.
- Look at your diet. Are you having caffeine or alcohol late in the day? They could make it difficult to fall asleep on time because of how they counteract the effects of sleepiness. And try to avoid eating large meals within three hours of bedtime.
- Limit naps. It’s no surprise lack of sleep makes us tired, which is why many people view naps as a game changer. It’s important to be mindful of the time of day and how long our naps are because taking them too late in the day, or for too long, can make it harder to fall asleep at night. For retirees, having more free time in the day makes it easier to nap. If you find yourself succumbing to naps during the day, try to limit them to no more than two naps for no more than 20-30 minutes each. If you are a caregiver of someone who takes multiple naps during the day, think about incorporating ways for them to stay active and alert longer. A few minutes of activity a day can play a large part in their overall health, including their sleep quality.
If you’re looking at these tips thinking, “Yeah, I do all those things but still have a hard time sleeping,” it might be time to talk to a doctor. Your primary care physician can help discover an underlying issue like insomnia, restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and more. It’s also important to look at any medications you are prescribed. Your doctor may be able to switch you to a version with less sleep-altering ingredients.
If you need help finding a primary care physician, care for an aging friend or relative, or information about staying active while you age, contact us online or give us a call at 501.372.5300. You never know, it could be a step in the right direction toward helping you and your aging loved ones get the most out of sleep.
National Sleep Foundation & Sleep.org
National Institute of Health
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention