It’s no secret that getting a good night’s sleep is crucial to support overall health and well-being.
A proper night’s sleep offers the body a chance to repair and recover, improves memory and mood, increases energy levels, and supports brain development and cardiac function.
Although most people are able to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, a recent study from the Sleep Health Foundation discovered that four in 10 are getting inadequate sleep. Alarmingly seniors suffered the greatest impact with a second study finding 47 per cent waking up in the night or in the early morning.
Sleep Expert Carmel Harrington, who has a PhD in Sleep Medicine, puts this epidemic of sleeplessness among older Australians down to “the structure of our sleep changing as we age”.
“From around the age of 20, deep sleep decreases continuously and in old age makes up only about 10% of our total sleep time. Our dream sleep also declines, but not to the same extent,” Harrington explains.
“The decrease in deep sleep and dream sleep is counterbalanced by an increase in light sleep. Because there is not as much deep slumber as in earlier years, an older person is often more easily aroused from sleep – leading to more awakenings during the night and to less efficient sleep. As a result, sleep sometimes seems to be less refreshing than in our younger years.”
Nutritionist and Owner of Australian Nutrition Centre James Jensen treats many older Australians for sleep issues and found similar causes for sleeplessness. Although poor sleep among seniors is common it shouldn’t simply be accepted as a part of the process of ageing with Jensen highlighting the common health impacts of sleeplessness.
“When people experience poor sleep, it can significantly interfere with their ability to perform daily tasks during the day,” he said.
“If poor sleep is consistent and occurring over prolonged time periods, it can lead to pain, discomfort and in some cases, long-term fatigue, as the body hasn’t had the chance to repair itself during the night.”
Although the impacts of poor sleep can have a myriad of negative effects on your well-being, working towards ensuring a proper night’s sleep can have just as many benefits.
Dr Andrew Bradbeer from Manse Medical, a respiratory and sleep medical practice, said “it’s not an exaggeration to say that it can make you feel 10 years younger, particularly if you have sleep apnea and get it treated.”
“Working to address problems with your sleep can really, really improve your wellbeing,” Bradbeer said.
“I often speak with people who feel that they are not able to enjoy their life in retirement as much as they had hoped because they are so fatigued.
“Whether you want to be able to travel, or keep working, or participate in community life, or enjoy grandchildren, it’s all so much better if you can be confident that you can get a good night’s sleep!”
There’s nothing worse than spending the night tossing and turning in a desperate attempt to secure yourself a few hours of shut-eye. Not only is it irritating and inconvenient it also contributes to a series of negative health consequences. With that in mind, the soft and soothing voice of Starts at 60 spoke further with Harrington and Jensen to get expert advice to help you drift off with ease and reap the benefits of good quality sleep.
There is a myriad of factors that can contribute to a lack of sleep, whether it be worrying about the grandkids, the stress of the rising cost of living, sleep disorders or common health issues.
Jensen attributes a person’s difficulty getting a decent night’s sleep to “poor sleep habits such as irregular sleep-wake times, consumption of caffeine or alcohol before bedtime, falling asleep in front of the TV or electronics, or daytime napping.”
“Health conditions such as arthritis or sleep disorders, which are commonly prevalent in individuals over 60, can also interfere with quality sleep,” he said.
“Individuals who have multiple health issues are also more likely to experience sleep issues.”
Jensen also pointed out the everyday factors around your home as well as lifestyle factors that could be negatively impacting your sleep quality
“Other factors such as temperature, noise and light exposure are also associated with poorer sleep and prevents the brain from entering the “deep sleep” mode,” he said.
“Diet can also be “make or break” for sleep quality. Generally speaking, seniors tend to eat less protein, which puts them at risk of being deficient in certain amino acids, that play a vital role in regulating sleeping patterns.”
Apart from health conditions and sleep disorders, Harrington considers “sleeping during the day, not exercising enough, not exposing ourselves sufficiently to sunlight and outdoors and alcohol as the main culprits for poor sleep among seniors.
However, Harrington also points to another not-so-silent issue that could be impacting not only your sleep quality but also that of your partner.
“The ResMed Sleep survey revealed that over a half of Australians (58 precent) snore. That’s a big number!” Harrington said.
“Snoring isn’t always a problem. It might irritate your partner, but if you’re waking up and feeling good each day, that’s not terrible.”
“What is terrible is if you’re sleeping the recommended 7 to 9 hours a night and you’re still waking up feeling exhausted. Then the snoring can be a sign of something serious like sleep apnea and that needs to be addressed.
“Many people have sleep apnea and don’t even know. It’s when you literally stop breathing multiple times a night in your sleep and that can put pressure on your heart. So, if you or your partner is not sleeping well, encourage them to speak to a health professional. ”
There are a number of supposed remedies to help someone fall asleep faster and deeper, but if counting sheep isn’t doing the trick then Harrington suggests some enjoyable and “mentally stimulating” activities to help you drift off come bedtime.
“A great thing to take up is dancing – it is a physical and mental challenge and is lots of fun! And having fun is important when it comes to sleep,” she said.
“It’s important as we age, to continue to exercise regularly and refrain from sleeping during the day. A 20-minute nap is ok, but definitely no longer.”
Harrington extols the virtues of routine and establishing healthy habits to improve the quality of sleep.
“It’s about setting yourself up for sleep success. That means having a relaxing routine you stick to
before you go to bed every night, making your bedroom conducive to sleep and waking up at the
same time every day,” she said.
“Good sleep hygiene is having healthy sleep habits. There are many things we can do and things we shouldn’t do during our day to improve our sleep.”
Some of Harrington’s Do’s and Dont’s to ensuring healthy sleeping habits include:
Even something as simple as ensuring “the room is as dark as possible is something Jensen suggests to help improve sleep quality given that “even small amounts of light suppress melatonin production and can cause disrupted sleep.”
Jensen also recommends reducing the level of caffeine you consume “and aim to not have any further caffeine after lunch time.” You could also substitute your daily caffeine fix for a sleep tea such as chamomile which Jensen said is “excellent in supporting sleeping patterns”.
“However, it is important to note that some sleep teas have the potential to react with medications,” he said.
Practicing the art of meditation can also be beneficial in helping relaxation and helping achieve a deeper sleep. There’s no need to get the singing bowls out or start chanting anytime soon, but a few minutes a day of mindfulness can “improve sleep quality as it assists in calming the nervous system, lowers levels of cortisol and ultimately prepares the body for sleep”, according to Jensen.
The temperature of your room can also contribute to whether you sleep well or spend the night tossing and turning.
“Our temperature naturally drops during sleep. A room that is too warm or too cold can interfere with the bodies thermoregulation abilities and disrupt sleep, particularly in those over 60. The key is to try and find the balance between hot and cold,” Jensen said.
Bradbeer stresses comfort is key when it comes to getting a night of restful sleep.
“Make sure that your mattress and pillow allow you to be comfortable. It’s usually a good idea to get comfy on your side as well if possible. Do try a knee pillow (between your knees) to make this more comfortable,” he said.
“Give yourself time to wind down. Try meditation. Even conversation, if you live with a loved one! If your room is not quiet, try ear-plugs, or even a sleep-assisting ear-bud.
“Do give yourself enough time to sleep. And pay attention to what your body and brain are telling you. If you’re feeling tired, try sleeping.”
Once you’ve set your sleep schedule, enjoyed your few minutes of meditation, cut back on the caffeine and removed any pesky rays of light that could disturb your sleep you can now finally enjoy the incredible benefits that come with getting a night of deep, restful sleep.
Harrington considers sleep to be the “third pillar of health” and when we get enough sleep we are provided with a “fountain of energy” that sets us up for the day ahead.
“When we are getting the sleep we require, we can get up every morning and face both the joys and the challenges of the day,” Harrington said.
“So often, when sleep deprived, we manage to meet all the “have to’s” of the day, but when it comes to doing something fun and enjoyable like going to dinner with your partner, you just feel too tired to bother.”
Bradbeer highlights that “better sleep has been proven to improve mood, and particularly to reduce anxiety and depression.”
“It improves memory, and ability to focus and think clearly,” he said.
Jensen points out that good quality sleep not only “helps improve concentration and memory formation” but is also “associated with healthy ageing”.
“Better sleep results in more energy during the day, less inflammation, better management of health conditions and increased cognitive function,” he said.
So if you’re ready to finally hit the snooze button on all those restless nights, Harrington recommends that if “you are experiencing problems getting to and/or staying asleep and have tried all the above advice, consider speaking to your doctor.”
“There are over 70 sleep disorders and most can be treated. There is no time like the present to start getting great sleep,” she said.
Jensen stresses that “it’s important to address the root cause of sleepless nights.”
“Don’t accept poor sleep as just a part of aging. Take charge of your own health, so you can wake up feeling refreshed and ready to conquer the day ahead.”
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.