The Complete Guide to Sleep like a Baby if You’re over 50, even if You Can’t Shut your Mind Off!
Written by Benjamin Semmens, Registered Nutritionist (BHSc)
Sleeping is essential for both your physical and mental health. Did you know that sleep deprivation can affect many different aspects of your health including your energy levels, mood, productivity, motivation, and even weight?
Many of us struggle to get a good night’s rest and this becomes even harder as we age. As we get older our sleep patterns change, and restless nights can become more frequent.
This can be the result of conditions such as menopause that cause hot flushes and other symptoms or arthritic pain that can result in sleep difficulties.
For many of us, having a restful sleep can seem like an impossible task and often people think the key to getting a good night’s rest is what they do at night.
While this is partially true, there are a lot of habits and lifestyle choices that we do during the day that affects our sleep quality that you might not be aware of!
In this blog you’ll learn all about how ageing can affect our sleep and some healthy habits and lifestyle choices you can make to help you get a better night’s rest!
Sleep and Ageing
It’s recommended that adults get roughly 7-9 hours of sleep a night, including older adults. However, older adults tend to go to sleep earlier in the evening, wake up during the night more often, and wake up earlier in the morning as they age leading to sleep deprivation.
There are many reasons why older adults can’t get enough sleep at night that include:
- Feeling sick
- Being in pain
- Medical conditions
In turn, not getting a good night’s rest can result in health complications such as:
- Feeling irritable
- Memory problems
- Depression/mood disorders
- Increased risk of falls/accidents
- Increased risk of chronic health conditions
Difficulty sleeping can affect all of us from time to time, however if you’re sleep deprived night after night this can have serious long-term consequences by increasing your risk of chronic health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and depression (1).
Just because you’re ageing, doesn’t mean you’re not capable of getting a good night’s rest!
The good news is that there are some strategies that you can easily implement into your life that can help to improve your sleep that can be used for not only older adults, but all ages too!
1. Create a consistent sleep schedule
Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can help to improve your sleep quality (2).
Inside your body you have an internal body clock known as your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm helps to make sure that various bodily processes are running smoothly and working best at different times during a 24-hour period (day and night).
Your circadian rhythm has some very important functions in the body such as regulating hormones, signalling that you’re hungry, and maintaining your body temperature (3).
Melatonin is a sleep hormone that signals to your brain that it’s time to sleep. Multiple studies have indicated that irregular sleeping patterns can dysregulate your circadian rhythm and melatonin levels (4, 5, 6).
A 2002 study found that people who had irregular sleeping schedules and went to bed later on the weekends had a decreased quality of sleep (7).
Aim to create a habit of going to bed and waking up at similar times each day. It may take some time for your circadian rhythm to adjust (initially you may be more tired!), however with time this can help to improve your sleep.
2. Get some sunshine
A 2003 study of older adults found that 2 hours of bright light exposure during the day increased sleep duration by 2 hours and increased sleep efficiency by 80% (11).
Getting natural sunlight can be harder for people who work night shifts. If this is the case, you can invest in an artificial light aka a SAD light that produces very bright lights to recreate daily sunlight.
A SAD lamp, light or light box uses light therapy to help improve your mood and regulate your circadian rhythm for a good night’s rest (12).
Aim for at least 30 minutes outdoors for a day.
3. Create a regular bedtime routine
There are some simple strategies that you can use as a bedroom routine each night to help you relax before you go to sleep.
Relaxing techniques can also help to clear the mind and have shown to help improve sleep quality. Some common relaxation techniques include listening to relaxing music, reading a book, taking a hot bath, meditating, deep breathing, journaling, and visualization. Try these out to see what works best for you (15, 16).
4. Avoid electronics & dim the lights
Electronic devices such as your phone, TV or computer emit blue light similar to the natural light exposure you get during the day.
Blue light tricks your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s still daytime even though its night time that reduces your sleep hormone melatonin that can keep you up at night.
A simple way to avoid this blue light is to avoid electronics at least an hour before bed. Other helpful techniques include downloading a blue light blocker or turning on night mode on your phone. You can also download apps on your laptop or computer like f.lux that block blue light (19, 20).
The lights in your house also emit blue light. As it gets later in the evening you can dim your lights to reduce this daytime-like effect.
5. Regular exercise
In one study of older adults, moderate exercise reduced the amount of time to fall asleep by half and increased the duration of sleep by 41 minutes each night (24).
While regular exercise is essential for a restful sleep, exercising too late at night can make sleep problems worse in some people (although these results are mixed!). This may be the result of exercise acting as a stimulant in the body increasing hormones such as adrenaline that increase alertness (25, 26, 27).
Some good examples of moderate exercise include brisk walking, bicycling, jogging, swimming, cleaning the house or even mowing the lawn! Most adults should aim for minimum 2.5 – 5 hours of moderate intensity exercise a week.
6. Avoid eating large meals too close to bedtime
Eating large meals too late in the evening can fill you with energy and may be keeping you awake.
When you eat late at night the food fuels your body with energy that can keep you in an aroused state affecting sleep. Eating late at night may also affect your body’s natural release of melatonin (28, 29, 30).
Interestingly, the type of food you eat before bed may also play a role in sleep quality.
One study found that eating a high carb meal 4 hours before bed helped people fall asleep faster. While another study showed that a low carb diet improved sleep, suggesting that carbs may not be reason for these results (31, 32).
Based on these findings it may be best to avoid meals at least 2 hours before bedtime.
7. Bedroom environment
Did you know that the temperate of your bedroom is important for a good night’s rest? You may have noticed its harder to get a good night’s rest on a hot summer night, that’s because humans sleep better in colder environments (33).
Studies have found that increased body and bedroom temperature decreased sleep quality and increased waking up during the night. 20 degrees Celsius is suggested to be the ideal temperature for most people, however, may depend on the person (34, 35, 36, 37).
Sleeping in a dark room is also essential for a good night’s rest. As it gets dark, your brain starts to produce melatonin, however light exposure can block this process that can affect your sleep (41).
Lastly, making sure you’ve got a good quality mattress and pillows can also help you to feel more comfortable and relaxed to support a good nights rest.
To keep your bedroom environment healthy try keeping a cool temperature, minimise external noise and lights, make sure your room is dark, and use comfy bedding!
8. Avoid caffeine in the afternoons
However, when caffeine is consumed later in the day it can keep your nervous system in a heightened state and prevent your body from relaxing when it comes time to go to bed.
Caffeine stays in your system for about 5 hours on average for most people, however, can last for up to 8 -10 hours in some individuals.
Considering how long caffeine can stay in your body for and how it can reduce quality of sleep, it’s probably best to avoid caffeine in the afternoons.
If you do have cravings for the taste of coffee, you could try decaffeinated coffee. Just be cautious though as decaf still contains small amounts of caffeine!
There is a common misconception that alcohol induces sleep. In fact, alcohol has quite the opposite effect. Alcohol is a sedative, meaning that when you drink it and feel sleepy this is because your sedated rather than being tired per se.
Alcohol is known to negatively affect sleep and cause sleep disruptions. Alcohol also affects hormones, in particular the natural production of melatonin (sleep hormone) that induces sleep (48, 49, 50).
Try to avoid alcohol, when possible, especially when it’s close to your bedtime!
10. Avoid long day time naps
Short naps can be beneficial for your sleep and health, while longer naps may negatively affect your health and sleep.
One study found that daytime naps less than 30 minutes have shown to be beneficial for brain function and improved sleep quality, however naps longer than 30 minutes during the day reduced sleep quality (55).
Some studies have suggested that these effects may be less prevalent if you are used to taking daytime naps, so it may really depend on the individual. Suggesting that if you take regular naps, you may not need to worry as much (56, 57, 58).
The bottom line here is that if you’re going to nap it’s probably better to nap for no longer than 30 minutes and avoid napping too late in the afternoon or evening.
11. Speak to your doctor to rule out potential causes
In some cases, there may be underlying health conditions causing sleep issues.
Insomnia can cause you to feel tired and exhausted that can last for days, months and even years. Insomnia is more common in older adults, with as many as 50% of older adults reporting insomnia in studies that can affect your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep (59).
Another common sleep disorder is sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea is a condition when you have difficulties breathing during sleep that causes you to wake up multiple times throughout the night. Sleep apnoea is more common than you think and affects approximately 24% of men and 9% of women (60).
There are other sleep conditions that are also common in older adults that include restless legs syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder.
Alzheimer’s disease is also more prevalent in older adults that can also affect a person’s sleep. People with Alzheimer’s disease can sleep too much in some cases, and not enough in other cases.
Speak to your doctor if you have ongoing sleep issues to rule out any underlying conditions.
12. Simple tips to fall asleep
If you’ve followed the previous 11 steps and are still struggling with sleep than you may want to try these methods when you’re lying in bed.
While counting sheep may sound like a bit of drag, you can try counting down slowly from 1000 or 100. You can also try relaxing your body by slowly focusing on each body part from your toes all the way up to your head.
If it’s been more than 20 minutes since you’ve been trying to fall asleep this may indicate that you’re not tired enough yet. If this is the case, you may want to get out bed and go do something else for a little bit then try again later to avoid frustration that only makes falling asleep harder!
While it is true that getting restful sleep can become harder as we age, it doesn’t mean you’re not capable of getting a good night’s rest.
As you now know there are many strategies you can use both during the day and at night that can help support your quality of sleep that can be used by all ages.
When you get a restful sleep, you’ll feel many benefits in both your physical and mental health that include improved energy, increased mood and productivity, weight maintenance and the reduced risk of chronic health conditions!
Important: Prescription drugs and over-the-counter sleep aids may interact with other medications. And taking certain prescription sleeping pills can lead to drug abuse or drug dependence, so it's important to follow your doctor's advice.
If you have any questions or need support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article does not constitute as medical advice and does not take into consideration your personal circumstances. Please see your medical professional before implementing the above.