Sleep Struggles as we grow older

Do you remember when you ‘slept like a baby’?  For me, this meant sleeping for seven or eight hours without waking — without tossing and turning — and, without crazy or frightening dreams.  As we grow older, many of us struggle to get a night of restful sleep.

Every year, I cheer the end of daylight saving time as the time change means that I should get an extra hour of rest without guilt which is heavenly. Although I stayed in bed longer on the weekend of the time change, I’m not sure I had an hour of extra sleep.  As I’m a night owl, I postponed bedtime (as is my usual habit) then had difficulty shutting down my monkey mind in spite of reading and relaxing before attempting to sleep.

Why is it that my body is ready to succumb to sleep but my brain stays active? Sometimes my brain stays busy doing re-runs of the day. Sometimes worries keep me awake as imagining a ‘worst-case scenario’ seems easier during the wee hours.  Sometimes a call from my ageing bladder requires an extra bathroom trip if I’ve consumed too many liquids in the evening.

I know I’m not alone with sleep struggles as I hear similar complaints from friends and associates.

Sleep Struggles As We Grow Older
Sleep Struggles As We Grow Older — photo courtesy of Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

Research on Sleep Struggles

Medics seem to agree that most adults, including those of 65 years of age and older, need 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. However, experts believe that up to 50% of older adults experience insomnia and other sleep difficulties.

The National Sleep Foundation reports that most older people have more difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. WebMD reports that sleep problems including light sleep, frequent waking, and daytime fatigue affect up to 40% of older people. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/19991207/combating-sleep-problems-elderly#1

These experts describe sleep problems as ‘normal’ and ‘common’ with the agreement that ageing creates a change in sleep patterns.  Older people find it harder to fall asleep and often awaken frequently  — up to 3 to 4 times — during the night. Older people also experience short and fewer periods of deep sleep.

Medical and/or psychiatric illness can exacerbate sleep difficulties. Dealing with pain can keep you awake. Sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome are specific medical problems that need medical attention.  As various prescription medications may affect sleep patterns, it’s worthwhile reviewing side effects with a doctor or pharmacist.

Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Lack of sleep has consequences including the inability to focus, memory problems, depressed mood, and poor concentration. Falls, accidents and balance problems may also be linked to lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation can affect metabolism causing increased appetite and weight gain. It can dampen sex drive, increase the risk of heart disease, increase the risk of diabetes, and affect balance and coordination. In my experience, I become irritable and cranky when I haven’t slept well.

For these reasons, I’m not ready to accept sleep struggles as part of growing older. I need both my body and brain to work as well as possible. I refuse to be the ‘grouch-bag’ for my husband or anyone who gets in my way.

Managing Sleep Struggles

While it’s easier said than done, getting more sleep is the best strategy for managing sleep struggles.

I try to limit screen time before bed.  For me, that means shutting down my laptop, turning off the televisions, and putting my phone on the charger. Screens emit bright red, green and blue light which is similar to sunlight in its effect on the brain.   I usually read before sleep, but I choose a print book and not an e-reader.

Blue light from screens is especially harmful as it interferes with the hormone melatonin that regulates circadian rhythms especially the signal to fall asleep. Circadian rhythms are like internal body clocks that regulate sleep/wake cycles. The melatonin hormone along with other chemicals produced by the body helps with falling asleep and staying asleep.  Melatonin pills help some people with sleep issues but it’s not a solution I’ve tried.

Many experts recommend a consistent bedtime and a set time for rising.  Some people use their phones to give bedtime alerts but this hasn’t worked for me.  I find that unfinished tasks before bed are triggers to keep me awake and the bedtime alert on my phone signals a rush to finish the daily ‘to do’ list. Regardless of when I get to sleep, my body sticks closely to a wake-up time every morning — for me, that’s about 7:20 am!

Because I am sensitive to temperature, I pay attention to the type of bed covers and weight of the duvet on my bed — not too light nor too heavy.  Like the Goldilocks story, the room can’t be too hot nor too cold.  I’m not particularly sensitive to light so it doesn’t bother me if my husband is reading in bed but I recognize that darkness helps promote good sleep.

To limit bathroom trips during the night, I watch the consumption of liquids after dinner. I limit alcohol to the ‘happy hour’ glass of wine before dinner and, perhaps another while eating.  As for caffeine from tea and coffee, I stop those drinks by 3 pm.

I have never used medication nor cannabis as but I know that many people find these sleep aids helpful. A friend, who spent years as an insomniac,  began sleeping for 7 to 8 hours when she started to use cannabis before bed.  She swears by it.  Marijuana doctors will prescribe it jurisdictions where legal cannabis is not available. Dispensaries, like pharmacies, can recommend a strain that helps produce sleep.

On those nights when my mind is racing, I sometimes turn on the lamp and write.  It may be a ‘to do’ list or notes on an important thought.  I find listening to certain podcasts another helpful technique.  A good podcast seems to change the channel of my brain and I usually fall asleep before an episode ends. For those nights when it’s impossible to sleep, I’ll simply get out of bed and read or listen to music.  In younger years, I found that getting out of bed and doing the ironing helped but, in retirement, I don’t have much ironing!

I’ve decided that so long as I feel rested and energized to face the day, I have had a good sleep. On those days when I’ dragging, I’ll drink some extra tea and/or coffee. If I’m enjoying a day at home, I’ll take a nap without feeling guilty.

So, readers, over to you — what strategies do you use to cope with sleep struggles?  If you have severe or persistent problems, please schedule a chat with your doctor. If mental distress causes sleep struggles, you may find that therapy is a solution.

How does your body respond after years of sleep deprivation?

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