Sleeping issues in advanced age are common. Many experience too light and unrestful sleep all night only to wake up too early in the morning. Additionally, experiences of trouble falling asleep after going to bed are common.
Indeed, these problems are so common that many are convinced that older people do not need as much sleep as younger individuals. This however is not true. In fact, good sleep is often more important than ever for older individuals, because it is an important time for the body and brain to repair cells and rebalance hormones (Levitin, 2020).
Although many individuals experience decreased quality and quantity of sleep during the nights you don’t need to accept thisas yet another burden to carry with advanced age. There are actions you can take to help you in regaining sufficient amounts of good-quality sleep once again.
People of any age are encouraged to go to sleep and get up at roughly the same time every day. Our biological clocks need the rhythm to produce different amounts of a variety of hormones. They steer important biological functions such as focus, our immune system and cell repair. Factors such as light and activity levels help to guide the body’s hormone production and their release. With increased age most people experience a change in routine, often starting with retirement (Levitin, 2020). All of the sudden people who have gotten up with the early birds every day for many years don’t have to do so anymore.
Instead they might change their routine to sleep in, and go to bed at a later time. Additionally, general activity levels often decrease with the exit from professional life and the increase in health issues. People don’t need to leave the house on a regular schedule as much anymore.
As a result of not having to leave the house regularly, older individuals often stay indoors most of the day. This can result in less exposure to direct daylight which affects the hormones regulating the sleep-wake cycle. By not being exposed to early daylight, the brain essentially does not receive the signal to “wake up”. Consequently, many experience sleeping issues in advanced age. Due to feeling sleepy they might take naps later during the day. This leads to not feeling sleepy at night.
Try to keep a routine sleep schedule, even after retirement. You can adjust your going to bed and waking up time to the new living situation. After a first adjustment period you should establish a regular routine again. Going to bed at a regular time will tell the body to release sleep-inducing hormones accordingly. On the other side of the sleep interval should be a regular wake-up time. This can be helped by using light, preferably daylight soon after waking up to signal to wake up the body. A way to use daylight to wake up would be for example by going for a morning walk soon after getting up.
It is no news that many older individuals often take a variety of medications. The use of medication to prevent and control common diseases and the taking of nutritional supplements are a necessary part of growing older for many. Ideally, these drugs are taken in accordance with a single, familiar doctor who considered the interaction of these different drugs (Levitin, 2020).
The problem is however that older individuals usually visit a variety of physicians. Additionally, the direct interactions of more than two medications are seldom studied. Most studies which focus on interactions between different medications focus on two different medications at a time. In reality many older individuals are taking a cocktail of different medications of which possible interactions are unknown (Levitin, 2020).
Discuss your sleeping issues with your doctor and ask them whether the combination of your medications and supplements could be causing them. Your doctor might be able recommend a change of medications to support your sleep.
Since so many suffer from sleeping issues in advanced age, many take sleep medication regularly (Levitin, 2020). The problem is that often these medications are not meant to be taken over long periods of time (Walker, 2018). The continuous use of sleeping pills can lead to a dependency on the medication which inhibits sleep when we stop taking the pills. A short-term use can be helpful but should always be discussed with a doctor. Additionally, some sleeping pills work for too long and cause drowsiness and sleepiness during the day. This often leads to individuals taking naps during the day, which as a result can disrupt the sleep at night.
Different sleeping pills work in different ways. Discuss your options with a medical professional can help you to find the best solution for your issue.
Differences in the daily routine and medication are not the only problems that can cause sleeping issues in advanced age. Many individuals feel disconnected from other people. Loneliness has even been described as a pandemic (Levitin, 2020; Walker, 2018). Feelings of loneliness should not be taken lightly. People are social creatures. Even if some people can thrive with fewer social interactions than others, we all need to feel connected to other people.
Loneliness was found to be connected with cognitive decay and mental health illness such as depression and anxiety (Peerenboom et al., 2015; Singh, Archana & Mishra, 2009). It is important for people to feel that they are part of society. We all want to know that our existence is important to others and that we have a purpose. With the end of the professional career many people lose an essential part of their identity, their role in society. The loss of this role can have a big effect on the life. The additional loss of other activities such as active hobbies, increases the likelihood of loneliness.
Studies have shown that older individuals who engage with others in meaningful activities tend to suffer fewer mental and physical ailments (Levitin, 2020). By being engaged and continuing an engaging lifestyle it is less likely that we become depressed and focus too much on our physical ailments.
Adults at any age feel the need to be a part of society and have a purpose. When the career has ended and it is difficult to engage in the same activities as before, we must look for new activities. These activities can vary from volunteering, which can improve purpose and connection with others, to trying new appropriate hobbies. Ideally, these activities involve other people and keep you engaged. Activities such as walking groups, book clubs or having regular card game meetups can help to stay mentally and physically fit. Any activity that makes you feel part of a group will help you feel less alone and bring back motivation.
Sleep issues are a difficult problem to face at any age. However I hope that this blog post inspired you to change your perspective of sleeping issues at advanced age. Despite what society generally seems to believe, you don’t have to accept it as a necessary part of growing older.
Yes, having restful nights is often more difficult with increasing age, but there are parts that you have control over, no matter your age. Hopefully these tips will help you re-consider your current situation. Do not hesitate to ask a physician or sleep scientist for more information on how you can sleep better at night.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can sleeping environment or sleep behaviour, you can attend our webinars on the topic of sleep this month or book a 1-on-1 session to zoom in on your sleep. Together we can improve your current situation and have you sleep well again.
Here are two book recommendations:
“Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams” by Matthew Walker (2018)
This book explores sleep for a variety of age groups and explains the neurological and practical implications a lack of sleep has on our lives.
“Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist explores the power and potential of our lives.” by Daniel J. Levitin (2020)
The author explores the different facets that influence how we age and what factors are important to sustain good mental and physical well-being into advanced age.
Levitin, D. J. (2020). Successful Aging. Dutton.
Peerenboom, L et al. “The Association Between Depression and Emotional and Social Loneliness in Older Persons and the Influence of Social Support, Cognitive Functioning and Personality: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Journal of affective disorders 182 (2015): 26–31. Web.
Singh, Archana, and Nishi Misra. “Loneliness, Depression and Sociability in Old Age.” Industrial psychiatry journal 18.1 (2009): 51–55. Web.
Stepnowsky, Carl J., and Sonia Ancoli-Israel. “Sleep and Its Disorders in Seniors.” Sleep medicine clinics 3.2 (2008): 281–293. Web.
Walker, M. (2018). Why we sleep. Penguin Books.
Photo: Tucker Good on Unsplash