It’s well researched that healthy aging comes with shifts in sleep patterns. Your circadian system, the complex interactions between your hormones and nervous system that influence the timing of everything from blood pressure to hunger, changes as you age.
And these changes are entirely normal.
Older adults often find that they want to go to bed earlier in the evening and get up earlier in the morning. They also report more sleep disturbances and a decreased ability to recover from jet lag (1).
So, if these sleep changes are normal, how do you recognize abnormal changes?
Abnormal sleep patterns affect your quality of life or health.
If you’re so tired that it’s keeping you away from the activities and people you love, it’s time to figure out why.
Medical issues may keep you awake or sleeping too long due to pain or exhaustion. For example, joint pain or heartburn are common but not necessarily normal parts of age-associated changes in sleep. In addition, feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression can also negatively affect sleep—more than 50% of older adults with depression suffer from insomnia.
It’s also important to be aware of signs that indicate a sleep disorder.
- Do you stay awake late into the night even though you feel exhausted?
- Have you been told that you’re a loud snorer or regularly gasp for air while asleep?
- Do your limbs jerk or twitch and keep you awake?
These are symptoms that should be communicated to your doctor—they may indicate insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless leg syndrome. And they can absolutely affect your quality of life and your health, including increased risk of heart disease and dementia.
Finally, medications that help you get to sleep may be a good short-term solution. But, in the long term, they mask the underlying reasons that your sleep isn’t what it used to be. And sleep medicines come with side effects such as daytime drowsiness, cognitive impairment, incoordination, dizziness, restless leg syndrome, and even an increased risk of falling (2).
Thankfully, there are ways to improve your sleep patterns. Remember, sleeping well equals aging well.
Stick To A Schedule
It’s alluring to nap during the day or stay up late if there’s not a 6 AM alarm in your future. But sticking to a set sleep schedule can help “train” your circadian rhythm for more restful, regular sleep. Pick a bedtime and wake-up time and do your best to stick to them.
Physical work makes us tired! Both fitness and social activities count toward staying active. Yes, exercise is crucial for aging well. But so is going out to see friends and family. Make plans at least twice per week for social activities, outings, and physical movement to get more sound sleep.
Eat A (Healthy) Snack
Eating a big meal right before bed is not great for our sleep. But a small snack is. Sometimes we wake during the night due to metabolic imbalances, such as a drop in blood sugar, and a few calories before bed can help us rebalance and stay asleep.
Great before-bed snacks include half an apple with some nut butter like almond, peanut, or cashew butter, a hard-boiled egg with a pinch of salt, or even a cup of homemade smoothie with high-quality protein powder, some blueberries, and ice. Just don’t overdo it—too much food and your bedtime snack may backfire.
Lights Out, Temperature Down
A pitch-black bedroom, preferably one that’s around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, is best for deep sleep. Blackout curtains keep streetlights out of your bedroom, and turning off all electronics will keep ambient light at bay. Consider using a small flashlight if you need a light to use in the bathroom. A weighted blanket keeps out the chill and is incredibly soothing if you deal with anxiety or depression.