When we’re young, the biggest barrier to getting enough sleep is often late nights out, early starts on the job or a crying baby. But things change as we age.
Many Australians notice that their sleep begins to suffer after age 65. They start to find it harder to fall asleep, wake up more often during the night, and begin to rise earlier in the morning.
But even beyond that, no matter how early you get to bed — or how many hours you stay there — you just don’t feel as refreshed as you once did. It is, unfortunately, a very normal experience for those of retirement age.
“Older Australians do tend to typically have worse sleep quality,” says sleep expert and author Olivia Arezzolo, who has 14 years of professional and academic experience in the psychology of sleep.
“Approximately 50 per cent of all older adults suffer from insomnia — that’s significantly higher than the average individual.”
The hormones have it
There are several reasons that aging affects our sleep. But a lot of it has to do with the hormones in our body and neurotoxins in our brain — something we can’t help.
“As we get older, sleep-promoting hormones decline in the body — that’s the normal aging process,” says Arezzolo.
Those hormones include melatonin, the hormone that causes us to feel sleepy, as well as testosterone, progesterone, estrogen and gamma-aminobutyric acid.
Their decline compromises the quality of our sleep, making it harder to get enough deep sleep — the sleep stage that promotes mental and physical restoration. That’s the reason why even if you spend the same number of hours in bed as you did in your 20s or 30s, you’re probably not going to wake up feeling as well-rested.
Another factor, Arezzolo says, is that as we age our brains can build up a neurotoxin called beta-amyloid, which interferes with sleep and affects our brain health. The less we sleep, the more beta-amyloid builds up, and the more beta-amyloid we have in our brain, the harder it becomes to sleep — it’s a vicious cycle.
But wait, there’s more
On top of those hormonal changes, even our ability to see the sunlight can impact our sleep.
“Many older adults have problems with their eyes. This compromises their ability to detect the light-dark cycle outside, which also controls our circadian rhythm and the production of melatonin, the key sleepiness hormone,” explains Arezzolo.
Needing to get up and urinate frequently as well as discomfort from chronic pains or illnesses can also affect our sleep quality. Anxiety and depression, which we tend to suffer from more in our later years, can play a role too.
So, what can we do about it?
The good news is there are a few things older Australians can do to try and address the shifts in their sleep patterns.
Supplementation with melatonin may be recommended for older adults as a potential solution, Arezzolo explains.
Taking a melatonin tablet before bed can help you supplement the hormone that has begun to decline in your body. They will also make you feel sleepy, which aids in falling asleep faster and staying asleep longer. Ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice about suitable products for you.
Another recommendation from Arezzolo is meditation.
“Older, long-term meditators have been shown to have three times higher levels of slow wave sleep, so deep sleep, compared to non-meditators. Essentially, it protects against the decline in slow-wave sleep. So that’s a huge one.”
You may already know that exercise can enhance sleep quality, and this is also applicable to older Australians, where a specific type of physical activity seems to be more beneficial than others.
“Yoga has been found, of all exercise forms, to be the most beneficial for sleep,” says Arezzolo. “It’s also really positive for mental health — and those challenges are quite prevalent and evident in the older adult category.”
Couple that with a relaxing bedtime routine and falling asleep will be easier. Drink a glass of warm milk, avoid screens, read a book — anything that helps you wind down is a good idea.
This article was first presented in the Sydney Morning Herald