The evidence is in. If you want to enjoy quality sleep, doctors suggest you avoid getting old at all costs. That’s because older people take it on the chin when it comes to lights out, but there is hope.
As we age, we take longer to fall asleep, spend less time in deep sleep and wake more frequently during the night – but that’s not all. If our rest is interrupted, we take longer to fall back to sleep.
These sleep changes, which are comparable to age-related changes in physical and mental skills, probably reflect the natural aging of the brain’s sleep system.
Other factors can magnify the problem, including common stressors among the aged. Loneliness, bereavement, worries about finances, health and death can all contribute to sleeplessness.
So what can you do? Anyone can take a few simple steps to improve what experts call “sleep hygiene.”
1. Avoid sleeping pills. New research indicates that non-drug approaches are clearly more effective than sleeping pills for chronic insomnia. Over-the-counter medications can have serious side effects, create a physical or psychological dependency and stop working over time.
2. Cut out alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. Alcohol may help you get to sleep initially, but will disturb sleep and affect the overall quality of your sleep. Both nicotine and caffeine hamper sleep by interfering with the brain chemical that promotes sleep, so you don’t get the deeper stages of sleep that promote physical and mental functioning. If you can’t give them up, limiting the use of these substances after noon to minimize their effects.
3. Maintain a consistent wake-up time. Forcing yourself into bed at a certain hour can actually make it harder to sleep; you may become anxious if you don’t fall asleep quickly. It’s recommended going to bed when you’re drowsy, and getting up around the same time each morning. Over time, this will better regulate your sleep rhythm.
4. Use your bed appropriately. By watching TV or reading in bed, many seniors are actually training their brains not to sleep. You’re sending a behavioral cue to your brain by doing this, so when you actually go to bed for the night, your body’s no longer sure if it’s bedtime or activity time.
5. If you can’t fall asleep after 30 minutes, go into another room and read or watch a fairly boring TV show until you feel drowsy. This will promote sleep better than worrying in bed.
6. Avoid long naps that can detract from nighttime sleep. A 10 to 20 minute nap between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. is fine. This is when the body’s circadian rhythm, our 24-hour cycle, experiences a natural dip.
7. Work out. Insomniacs tend to lead more sedentary lives than good sleepers. Exercising three to six hours before bedtime is the optimum. It produces a significant rise in body temperature, followed by a compensatory drop that induces sleep. A hot bath two hours before bed is a great substitute on days when you can’t exercise.
8. Keep your room cool. Insomnia is related to your body’s ability to drop in temperature either at bedtime or during the night. Open a window or adjust your thermostat to avoid warm temperatures that can impede sleep.
9. Get outside. Sunlight is a natural sleep regulator. A brightly lit room has only 500 luxes of light (a lux supplies roughly the same amount of light as one burning candle), but a midsummer noon has 100,000. Spending your day indoors is like keeping your brain in the dark all day. If you have trouble falling asleep, catch some rays early in the day. If you have trouble staying asleep in the early morning hours, make sure you get sunlight in the late afternoon.