How much sleep do older adults need?
While sleep requirements vary from person to person, most healthy adults require seven to nine hours of sleep per night. However, how you feel in the morning is more important than a specific number of hours.
Frequently waking up not feeling rested or feeling tired during the day are the best indications that you’re not getting enough sleep.
Here are some things you need to know about your sleeping habits:
Tip 1: Understand How Sleep Changes As You Age
Your body produces lower growth hormone levels as you age, so you will likely experience a decrease in slow-wave or deep sleep (an especially refreshing part of the sleep cycle).
When this happens, you produce less melatonin, meaning you will often experience more fragmented sleep and wake up more often during the night. That is why many of us consider ourselves “light sleepers” as we age. You may also:
In most cases, such sleep changes are normal and don’t indicate a sleep problem.
Sleep problems are not related to age.
At any age, it’s common to experience occasional sleep problems.
However, if you experience any of the following symptoms regularly, you may be dealing with a sleep disorder:
Tip 2: Identify underlying causes for your insomnia.
Underlying but very treatable causes cause many cases of insomnia or sleep difficulties. By identifying all possible causes, you can tailor treatment accordingly.
Common causes of insomnia and sleep problems in older adults:
Poor sleep habits and sleep environment. These include irregular sleep hours, consumption of alcohol before bedtime, and falling asleep with the TV on. Make sure your room is comfortable, dark and quiet, and your bedtime rituals conducive to sleep.
Pain or medical conditions. Health conditions such as a frequent need to urinate, pain, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, nighttime heartburn, and Alzheimer’s disease can interfere with sleep. Talk to your doctor to address any medical issues.
Menopause and post-menopause. During menopause, many women find that hot flashes and night sweats can interrupt sleep. Even post-menopause, sleep problems can continue. Improving your daytime habits, especially diet and exercise, can help.
Medications. Older adults tend to take more medicines than younger people, and the combination of drugs and their side effects can impair sleep. Your doctor may be able to make changes to your medications to improve sleep.
Lack of exercise. If you are too sedentary, you may never feel sleepy or feel sleepy all the time. Regular aerobic exercise during the day can promote good sleep.
Stress. Significant life changes like moving into a retirement home, the death of a loved one, or moving from a family home can cause stress. Nothing improves your mood better than finding someone you can talk to face-to-face.
Lack of social engagement. Social activities, family, and work can keep your activity level up and prepare your body for a good night’s sleep. If you’re retired, try volunteering, joining a seniors’ group, or taking an adult education class.
Sleep disorders. Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and sleep-disordered breathing—such as snoring and sleep apnea—occur more frequently in older adults.
Lack of sunlight. Bright sunlight helps regulate melatonin and your sleep-wake cycles. Try to get at least two hours of sunlight a day. Keep shades open during the day or use a light therapy box.
Tip 3: How To Improve Your Sleeping Habits
In many cases, you can improve your sleep by addressing emotional issues, improving your sleep environment, and choosing healthier daytime habits. Since everyone is different, it may take some experimentation to find the specific changes that work best to improve your sleep.
Naturally boost your melatonin levels. Artificial lights at night can suppress your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. Use low-wattage bulbs where safe to do so, and turn off the TV and computer at least one hour before bed.
Don’t read from a backlit device at night (such as an iPad). If you like to read from a tablet or other electronic device, switch to an E-Reader that requires an additional light source.
Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool, and your bed is comfortable. We often become more sensitive to noise as we age, and light and heat can also cause sleep problems. Using a sound machine, earplugs, or a sleep mask can help.
Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex. By not working, watching TV, or using your computer in bed, your brain will associate the bedroom with just sleep and sex.
Move bedroom clocks out of view. The light can disrupt your sleep, and anxiously watching the minutes tick by is a sure-fire recipe for insomnia.
Keep a regular bedtime routine for better sleep.
Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, even on weekends.
Block out snoring. If snoring is keeping you up, try earplugs, a white-noise machine, or separate bedrooms.
Go to bed earlier. Adjust your bedtime to match when you feel like going to bed, even if that’s earlier than it used to be.
Develop soothing bedtime rituals. Taking a bath, playing music, or practicing a relaxation technique such as progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, or deep breathing can help you wind down before bed.
Limit sleep aids and sleeping pills. Many sleep aids have side effects and are not meant for long-term use. Sleeping pills don’t address the causes of insomnia.
How to nap. If you don’t feel fully alert during the day, a nap may provide the energy you need to perform fully for the rest of the day. Experiment to see if it helps you.
Some tips for napping:
(Keep an eye out for these memory loss misconceptions and common myths)
Tip 4: Use Diet & Exercise To Improve Sleep
Two of the daytime habits that most affect sleep are diet and exercise. As well as eating a sleep-friendly diet during the day, it’s particularly important to watch what you put in your body in the hours before bedtime.
Limit caffeine late in the day. Avoid coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate late in the day.
Avoid alcohol before bedtime. It might seem that alcohol makes you sleepy, but it will actually disrupt your sleep.
Satisfy your hunger prior to bed. Have a light snack such as low-sugar cereal, yogurt, or warm milk.
Cut down on sugary foods. Eating a diet high in sugar and refined carbs such as white bread, white rice, pasta, and French fries can cause wakefulness at night and pull you out of the deep, restorative stages of sleep.
Avoid big meals or spicy foods just before bedtime. Large or spicy meals may lead to indigestion or discomfort. Try to eat a modest-size dinner at least 3 hours before bedtime.
Minimize liquid intake before sleep. Limit what you drink within the hour and a half before bedtime to limit how often you wake up to use the bathroom at night.
Exercise—especially aerobic activity—releases chemicals in your body that promote more restful sleep. Even if you have mobility issues, there are countless activities you can do to prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep. But always consult your doctor before embarking on any new fitness program.
Swimming/water exercises. Swimming laps is a gentle way to build up fitness and is great for sore joints or weak muscles. Many community and YMCA pools have swim programs just for older adults and water-based exercise classes.
Dancing. If you love to move to music, go dancing or take a dance class. Dance classes are also a great way to extend your social network.
Lawn bowling, bocce. These ball games are gentle ways to exercise. The more you walk and the brisker the pace, the more aerobic benefit you’ll experience.
Golfing. Golf is another exercise that doesn’t require vigorous movement. Walking adds an aerobic bonus, and spending time on the course with friends can improve your mood.
Cycling or running. If you are in good shape, you can run and cycle until late in life. Both can be done outdoors or on a stationary bike or treadmill.
Aerobic exercise helps seniors sleep better.
A study at Northwestern University found that aerobic exercise resulted in the most dramatic improvement in quality of sleep, including sleep duration, for middle-aged and older adults with a diagnosis of insomnia.
Source: National Sleep Foundation
Tip 5: Reduce Mental Stress
Stress and anxiety built up during the day can also interfere with sleep at night. It’s important to learn how to let go of thoughts and worries when it’s time to sleep.
As you get older, it’s normal to wake up more often during the night. However, if you’re having trouble falling back asleep, the following tips may help:
Do not stress. Stressing over the fact that you can’t get back to sleep only encourages your body to stay awake. Try to stay out of your head and focus on the feelings and sensations in your body instead.
Make relaxation your goal, not sleep. Try a relaxation technique such as deep breathing or meditation, without getting out of bed. Although not a replacement for sleep, relaxation can still help rejuvenate your body.
Do a quiet, non-stimulating activity. If you’ve been awake for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a non-stimulating activity, such as reading a book. But keep the lights dim and avoid screens.
Postpone worrying. If you wake during the night feeling anxious about something, make a brief note of it on paper and postpone worrying about it until the next day when it will be easier to resolve.
When To Talk To Your Doctor About Sleep Problems
If your own attempts to solve your sleep problems are unsuccessful, keep a sleep diary and take it to your doctor. Write down when you use alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, and keep track of your medications, exercise, lifestyle changes, and recent stresses. Your doctor may then refer you to a sleep specialist or cognitive behavioural therapist for further treatment, especially if insomnia takes a heavy toll on your mood and health.
Therapy vs. sleeping pills for insomnia in seniors. While sleeping pills and sleep aids can be effective when used sparingly for short-term situations, such as recovery from a medical procedure, they won’t cure your insomnia. In fact, they can make insomnia worse in the long term.