Ways to improve sleep as we age

Research has shown that there are typical age-related, normal changes that occur in sleep patterns as people age.

Typically sleep becomes shallower and more fragmented and many elderly people report that they seem to need less sleep than when they were younger or that they find it hard to fall asleep. Of course, there is also the frequently-reported increase in the need to relieve the bladder during the night.

Factors associated with the development of insomnia in the elderly include depression and psychological distress, medical conditions, medications, and circadian rhythm disturbances.

Health conditions can affect the ability to sleep include:

  • Heart and lung conditions which affect breathing, such as heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease, which causes heartburn symptoms and can be affected by big meals late at night
  • Painful conditions, including osteoarthritis
  • Urinary problems that cause urination at night; this can be caused by an enlarged prostate or an overactive bladder
  • Mood problems such as depression and anxiety
  • Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
  • Medication side-effects

However, quality of sleep may be more important than quantity and there are natural ways of ensuring a restful night that do not require the use of medications, which can be damaging in the longer term.

They include boosting the levels of melatonin by getting enough daylight and using low-wattage bulbs where safe to do so and turning off the TV and computer at least one hour before bed.

Using back-lit devices such as tablets or laptops can also disrupt sleep.

Ensure the bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool, and the bed is comfortable and use the room only for sleeping. Try to keep to a bedtime routine.

Changing dietary habits can also help such as not drinking caffeine-rich drinks such as tea or coffee late in the day, cutting down on sugary foods and avoiding eating heavy or spicy meals late in the evening.