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Trouble sleeping? Why over-50s have trouble sleeping, and what to do about it

According to experts, you should be getting between seven and nine hours every night. But, sleep is an individual thing – we each need the amount we need, and that may not be the same as someone else.

Sleep goes in cycles, and studies have shown that’s due to varying brain waves. Rapid eye movement sleep (REM) alternates with non-REM, going around several times during the night, with longer periods of the deeper REM sleep towards morning. Now you’re older, you might sleep less at night, and make up for it with ‘nana naps’ during the day.

Here are some reasons why you may not be getting a good night’s sleep:

It’s just harder to sleep now

When you get older, you have less growth hormone, so you’ll also have less melatonin and deep sleep. You wake up more often at night, and you’re more easily disturbed. You might start going to bed earlier, linger in bed in the mornings to catch up or take that nap.

Naps: too many and too long

Disturbed sleep at night can make you sleepier in the afternoon – and a solid afternoon nap can make you less sleepy at bedtime, putting you in danger of a vicious cycle of insomnia and naps.

Health problems

Some medical conditions – arthritis, heart failure, depression, reflux, Alzheimer’s disease – can cause insomnia and disrupted sleep. Problems like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome may get more severe as you get older, waking you up more often and making it harder to fall asleep.

Bad habits

Sometimes you’re your own worst enemy! Your bedroom might be too light, noisy or the wrong temperature. Drinking alcohol before bed disrupts your sleep, too – and your bladder. If you let yourself fall asleep in front of the TV and take the edge off, by bedtime you’ll find you’re not sleepy anymore. You could also have a schedule that constantly changes, instead of a regular bedtime routine.

Menopause

Who can sleep through night sweats? Often, once menopause symptoms have disrupted your sleep, the disruption keeps going well after the sweats have thankfully stopped.

Prescriptions

Are your pills making you wake at night? Side effects and combinations of medications can be very disruptive to sleep.

What you do during the day

If you’re a stay-at-home, or not very active, that can affect your sleep. You could be having regular daytime naps, or you might not ever get tired enough for a deep sleep at night. If you’re still working and you sit at a computer for hours every day, the artificial light could be an issue, too.

Other things

Stress, grief, or even shifting house can affect your sleep patterns. Too long indoors also lowers that all-important melatonin production.

How to have a better night’s sleep

Whatever age you are, you need to sleep well to function during the day – and be happy. Your sleep patterns change as you age, so it’s good to know what’s ‘normal’ and what you can do to improve your sleep. Here are some ideas:

Know yourself

Get to know your cycles and sleep needs, and when you find yourself nodding off during the day, go outside for a gentle walk. If you do nap, keep it to a refreshing ‘power nap’ of about 5-10 minutes, and save your deep REM sleep for night-time.

Keep to a routine

Develop – and keep to – a bedtime routine. Stop watching TV well before you go to bed, and go gently through the process of getting ready for sleep at the same time every night. Take a warm bath, meditate or just daydream, to settle your mind.

Only sleep and sex

Don’t work in bed, get rid of the bedroom TV, and limit all bedroom activities to sleeping, cuddling and sex.

Read a real book

Put away all back-lit devices (like your phone, iPad or TV) well before you go to bed – the blue light is known to disrupt sleep. Have a real book next to your bed instead, all ready to be part of your night-time wind-down.

Cut out light

It’s much harder to fall asleep – and stay asleep – when your bedroom isn’t dark enough. Install heavier curtains, cover that digital clock, and if you really need light for the night trip to the loo, keep a flashlight handy. If you can’t cut the light, use a sleep mask.

Bed comfort

Make sure you have the right bed for you, and the right covers for the season, so you’re not too hot or too cold. If your mattress is getting old and saggy, consider investing in a new one.

Health check

Ask your doctor for help with any pain or discomfort that’s disturbing your dream time. If you think your prescriptions may be keeping you awake, see if there are ways to change your medications or your lifestyle, so you get a better night’s rest.

Adjust your diet

Do you drink a lot of coffee or tea? Avoid all stimulants (and sorry, that includes chocolate!) in the afternoon and evening. Alcohol seems like it will help you sleep, but it does the opposite, and so do refined sugar, white flour products and white rice. A pre-bedtime snack should be light and contain calcium or magnesium, the sleep minerals – yoghurt, warm milk, avocado, cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds, and anything made with whole grains. It’s also a good idea to limit fluids right before you go to bed, to reduce the times you need to get up in the night.

Get out in the sunshine and move

To make your nights better, look at what you do during the day, and consider taking more exercise. More real light (rather than indoor, artificial light) is better for your mood and your melatonin production, and regular walking helps fix a lot of things! For an added social bonus, take up bowls or golf, and if you have arthritis or other joint issues, swimming is a good, gentle alternative.

Sleep, perchance to dream

Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you have to put up with poor sleep. It’s true that we tend to sleep more lightly as we age, but there are plenty of things you can do to make sure your sleep is as deep and refreshing as possible. Get regular exercise, eat healthy food, cut down on alcohol and refined sugar, and develop that all-important bedtime routine.

Give your brain a chance to wind down from the day, and make your bedroom a sanctuary of rest and relaxation – banish work and the blue light of electronic devices like television. Happy dreaming!