As we age, we all experience a change in our sleeping patterns. But we still need good rest. Follow our experts' advice for the best zzzz ever
Sleep is as vital to our physical and mental wellbeing as food and water. And though scientists are still uncertain about exactly why we need sleep, without it our health soon suffers.
‘The problem with sleep as people get older is that we get hung up on duration rather than quality,’ says Professor Kevin Morgan, director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at the University of Loughborough.
As we age, we still need around seven to nine hours a night, though this can vary from individual to individual. What changes is that the sleep we do have is lighter and more fragmented.
Our sleep cycle is part of our 24-hour body clock, or circadian rhythm, and broadly comprises five stages: four non-rapid eye-movement stages (non-REM) and one rapid eye-movement stage (REM).
Light sleep occurs in the first two stages of non-REM, deep sleep in the next two, followed by dreaming in the REM stage. And we go through several cycles through the night.
‘There are two classic scenarios,’ explains Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, physiologist and sleep expert, and author of Fast Asleep, Wide Awake (£12.99, Thorsons). ‘It’s either difficulty getting to sleep or waking in the early hours and not being able to get back to sleep.
‘People who wake in the early hours often think they’ve not had any more sleep by the time the alarm clock goes off. But it’s a kind of pseudo-insomnia.’
However, there are three common sleep disorders that do affect the quality of sleep: insomnia, sleep apnoea and restless legs syndrome.
‘Insomnia increases with age, though it’s not caused by ageing,’ says Professor Morgan. ‘By the time you get to your 60s and 70s, around 25 per cent of people will have symptoms of insomnia. This is mirrored in the increased consumption of sleeping tablets and other sleep remedies.
‘There are a number of reasons for this,’ continues Professor Morgan. ‘Conditions such as arthritis can cause pain, and the hot flushes of the menopause lead to disturbed sleep.
‘Insomnia is a clinical condition that deserves proper treatment.’ He advises that, if you have had trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking early at least three times a week for at least three months, see your GP. The preferred treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It’s less harmful than sleeping pills, which are addictive and won’t cure the problem in the long term.
More common in men and in those who are obese, sleep apnoea affects around 20 per cent of people over 65 and causes excessive daytime sleepiness.
It occurs when the throat narrows during sleep and repeatedly interrupts your breathing. This leads to a fall in the blood’s oxygen levels, and the difficulty in breathing prompts your brain to wake you up without you understanding why you’ve woken.
Left untreated, it can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Treatment is usually provided by sleep clinics (your GP can refer you) and usually involves wearing a mask over your nose and mouth attached to a machine that helps to prevent the airway from collapsing during sleep.
Restless Legs Syndrome
‘This movement disorder affects up to 4 per cent of people and is most intense in the evenings or when dropping off to sleep,’ explains Professor Morgan. ‘It involves an irresistible urge to move, accompanied by a sensation of pins and needles.’
Drug treatment – particularly drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease – can help. ‘Also, try having an evening Epsom salts bath,’ advises Dr Ramlakhan. ‘Many people find this effective, and it also helps to relax you.’
10 Expert Tips for a Great Night's Sleep
If you don’t have any of these conditions, there is still a lot you can do to help get a restorative night’s sleep. Follow our tips to wake feeling refreshed.
- Sleeping in doesn’t help. It’s better to keep regular bed and waking times.
- If you do wake in the night, try not to worry, advises Dr Ramlakhan. ‘If you need to go to the loo, just get up and go, but don’t check the time.’
- Reduce or cut out caffeine – sensitivity to caffeine increases with age. And cut down on fluid intake, too, towards the end of the day.
- We’re more easily woken as we age – and more sensitive to noise – so try to ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark and not too hot (16°C is ideal).
- No electronics at bedtime is important, no matter what age we are, says Dr Ramlakhan. So no digital devices or TVs in the bedroom (including e-readers, tablets and smartphones).
- Limit daytime naps to no more than 20 minutes and before 4pm.
- Regular physical activity helps. A 30-minute, preferably brisk, walk at least three times a week is ideal. Walk outdoors, as studies show that people who get adequate exposure to natural daylight sleep better.
- ‘Always have breakfast,’ says Dr Ramlakhan and include protein at every meal. ‘If you’re hungry before bedtime, have a milky drink and a couple of oatcakes an hour beforehand.’ And go easy on alcohol.
- Breathing exercises and compiling a gratitude list are advocated by Dr Ramlakhan. ‘Giving thanks for all the good things, however small, that have happened during the day helps counterbalance stress and tension.’
- Try a magnesium supplement (preferably magnesium glucanate). ‘This can help you get to sleep,’ says Dr Ramlakhan.
Image credits: iStock, Shutterstock