Understanding how sleep patterns change as we age

Posted on: 29 November 2018 by 50connect editorial

Disrupted sleep can not only ruin your day but also your health. Here are our eight top tips for ensuring a restful sleep

restful sleep

Sleeping through the night can feel like a thing of the past for many people. Reading in bed until the early hours and finally dropping off only to awake an hour later for the first of several visits to the bathroom can be a regular occurrence. Some find themselves unable to lie comfortably on a flat mattress and end up tossing and turning or getting up to making a cup of tea in the middle of the night. No wonder so many of us feel tired, irritable.

As we age, our sleep pattern becomes less consolidated in one long night-time session. This can be a problem because brain activity changes during sleep; there are two main types.

The first is REM (rapid-eye-movement), which is associated with dreaming and is thought to assist brain development. The second is NREM (non-rapid-eye-movement), which is characterised by 3 stages: N1 – light sleep; N2 – deeper sleep; N3 – deepest sleep. As we go from N1 to N3 our brain waves get slower at each stage, but as we age periods of slow-wave sleep (N3) become shorter. Therefore, a night’s sleep becomes more fragmented and disturbed.

Sleep is vital. But there is a word of warning. If we choose to take a late afternoon nap this may disrupt a night’s sleep even more, so if a nap suits us perhaps just after lunch is better. The point is, it’s important for us to understand our own individual 24-hour internal clocks, known as circadian rhythms, which are responsible for the times we sleep, awake, eat, hormone secretion and body temperature. Circadian rhythms fluctuate and change throughout our lives and vary for each one of us. For instance, the sleep pattern of a baby is very different to that of a child. The pattern changes as a teenager, again as an adult and continues to change. For the mature person sleep cycles become shorter, but we are all different. Therefore, noticing our natural patterns of sleep and working with them is highly sensible. After all, becoming frustrated and angry will only make matters worse.

Our top tips for a good night's sleep

Calm and quiet. It’s not one size fits all when it comes to sleep, but loud noises or television programmes will keep your mind stimulated and stop you from nodding off. If you hate silence then relaxing noises like ocean waves or bird song are good way of relaxing you.

Darkness. Keep your room dark, but allow natural light to wake you, it’s a much better way to wake up than the alarm!

Keep your bedroom cool. Your body temperature drops as you go to sleep so sleeping in a cool room is the best for a good night’s sleep. Layer up with blankets early on, if you’re too hot in the night you’ll kick them off. Have you ever noticed that after a hot bath you feel tired? That’s because the energy your body uses cooling you down makes you tired, it’s the same principle.

Correct posture and support. Never underestimate the value of the correct bed to a good night's sleep.  Adjustable beds offer a choice of comfortable sleeping positions and can also provide leg support and rise and recline backrests. Rather than accepting a generic bed frame and mattress from the highstreet, you can tailor a bed to your specific needs through companies such as The Mobility Furniture Company. 

Avoid caffeine and other stimulants. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine are all stimulants so all have the potential to keep you awake. Curb your intake as the evening wears on, then you should be worn out by the time you hit the hay.

Exercise. If you’re fit, healthy and unstressed you sleep better, so exercise during the day and you’ll have no trouble nodding off.

Stick to a nightime routine. It’s very tempting to have a lie in at the weekend and have late nights to make up for the fact that during the week you’re in bed by 9.30pm, but if you keep in an even routine you’ll find going to sleep, and more importantly getting up is easier.

Be pragmatic about sleep. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep don’t torture yourself. If after 15-20 minutes you’re not falling asleep then get up, go into a different room and do something that will tire you out, like reading.

Of course, there are always those relaxing things we can do to help ourselves on a practical level. Some enjoy hot milk at bedtime or chamomile tea. Others prefer a warm bath, soothing music or talking books. Whatever your preference, sleep will help us think clearly and function as well as we can.

We'd love to know whether your sleep patterns have changed. Use the comment section below to let us know what effect sleep disruption has had on your life / relationship.

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