The importance of sleep as we age

Posted on: 20 April 2015 by Lynda Shaw

Dr Lynda Shaw says getting enough quality sleep can help protect your mental and physical health as you age.

sleep in laterlife

As we age we may notice that our sleeping routines have changed slightly. We may feel guilty about taking a small nap on the sofa if we feel we need it, or going to bed before the ten o’clock news, but we really shouldn’t. Sleeping habits change as we age so we need to prioritise sleep as it is vital for combatting depression, memory problems, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Research shows that as we age our bodies produce lower levels of growth hormone, so we will experience a decrease in deep sleep. When this happens we produce less melatonin, meaning we’ll often suffer more disjointed sleep and wake up more often during the night. The consequences of this can be huge and can even lead to an increased sensitivity to pain and further serious health issues such as diabetes and weight problems, so it is important to understand the changes in sleep as we age.

Poor sleep habits

Unfortunately the Sunday morning lie-in is something we all love but can in fact be damaging in the long-term to our sleep routine. On the other hand poor sleep habits like having an inadequate sleep environment can lead to bad-quality sleep so getting it just right is important. A relaxing bath, calm music or reading a book will help us wind down ready for bed. Avoid using any backlit device such as a smartphone or tablet as these cause melatonin suppression, which might lead to sleeplessness. Furthermore sunlight during the day helps control melatonin and your sleep-wake pattern so try and get at least two hours of sunlight a day plus makes simple changes like keeping curtains wide open during the day or moving our favourite chair to a sunny spot.

For some, a good night’s sleep just isn’t enough and we may often feel tired in the day. Sometimes people are scared of taking a little nap as it detracts from sleep at night. Nevertheless, if we have the luxury to do so and we are not at work (!), an afternoon nap is a brilliant way of providing us with a bit of extra energy. Studies show that a short sleep can improve stress management abilities, concentration and performance.

Rebalancing your body clock

Around one in ten of us don’t have the luxury of sleeping at night due to working night-shifts. For these people sleeping problems can often become part of their lives which they struggle to control. Often night-shifts go hand-in-hand with extremely long periods without sleep which can significantly damage our circadian rhythms and lead to developing cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. It is important that night-shift workers maintain the same routines as they would to sleep normally at night. Changing our body clock certainly isn’t easy but it is necessary if we are to keep a healthy mind and body. Therefore try not to rush into bed, but take a little bit of time to relax before sleep. Again, just like sleeping at night, a routine sleeping pattern aids the sleep cycle and therefore helps avoid cases of depression and memory problems.

Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect our mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety whatever our age.

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