Ageing and sleep: Advice on sleeping well

“To die, to sleep – To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, For in this sleep of

“To die, to sleep –

To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,

For in this sleep of death what dreams may come…” Shakespeare Hamlet.

Unfortunately, about 50% of older adults complain of sleep disturbance. Although some sleep disturbance may be due to normal ageing, most disturbances are due to a medical condition in addition to normal ageing. More women than men seem to suffer from insomnia. The prevalence of insomnia in the older population is estimated somewhere between 20% and 40%.

There are other sleep disorders apart from insomnia, such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea etc. Lack of sleep in older adults can result in a decrease in cognitive functions such as memory and concentration. Alertness can be diminished and response times can be slower. Of course sleepiness during the day can occur which may cause accidents. Prolonged lack of sleep can result in mood disorders.

As we age there is a reduction in the production of a hormone called melatonin. This hormone kicks in at night to help us sleep and switches off in the morning with exposure to first light. (This explains the reason for jet lag, as the normal sleep-wake rhythm becomes out of sync as we pass through time zones and the inability of shift workers to engage in proper sleep). Being in a bright light room prior to sleep may inhibit the production of melatonin and deter sleep. Early exposure to the morning light would seem beneficial to the rhythm of melatonin switching off and restarting.

Apparently there are a number of foods that can naturally increase melatonin production rather than a synthetic pill which can only be obtained with a doctor’s prescription. These are pineapples, bananas, oranges, oats, sweet corn, rice, tomatoes and barley. The first three being the most effective in boosting melatonin.

Insomnia is rarely due solely to the effect of ageing. There are any number of conditions that can inhibit proper sleep, medical and psychological. However, some difficulties in sleep may be alleviated by some changes in lifestyle. Exercise during the day, preferably in the morning, if possible will at least make you more tired and more likely to have a better night’s sleep.

Avoiding alcohol and caffeine and medications at night that affect sleep are fairly obvious things to do. Limiting drinking in the evening. Maintaining a regular cycle of waking and sleeping times and eating the evening meal at a regular time also may help. Regulating day time naps to about 20 mins and not napping in the late afternoon will enhance going to sleep at night.

There is some good news. People with insomnia may be getting more sleep than they realise. Research has shown the tendency for people with insomnia to underestimate the amount of sleep they have not realising how much sleep they actually get. Also, it is possible to function without adverse consequences with a bit less than the 7 to 8 hours of the recommended sleep.

 Tell us, what do you do the help get a good night’s rest?

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