It’s harder to get a good night’s sleep as we grow older. We might find ourselves in bed for hours, unable to drift off. Or, we might fall asleep right away, only to find ourselves awake in the middle of the night. Maybe we wake up at 4 a.m., and lie awake until dawn. Painful health conditions might interfere with sound sleep. Of course, those middle-of-the-night bathroom trips can get us out of bed, interrupting sleep night after night. And even if we’re sleeping for the recommended 7 or 8 hours, we nonetheless might not feel rested the next day.
Poor Sleep is Linked to Other Health Problems
Sleep research is helping experts understand why it’s harder to sleep well as we grow older. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) used sophisticated brain imaging to observe the brains of sleeping elders, and in an article published in the journal Neuron, they noted that it’s a two-part problem:
- As we age, less of our sleep time is marked by the types of brain waves that help us remember things long-term.
- Older brains have trouble balancing the chemicals that help us transition into sleep, and then wake up.
We shouldn’t take sleep problems lightly. Sleep scientist Matthew Walker, UCB professor of neuroscience and lead researcher of this study, reports that sleep deterioration is linked to a host of health problems, including dementia, heart disease, obesity, and stroke. “Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” said Walker. “We’ve done a good job of extending life span, but a poor job of extending our health span. We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a new pathway for helping remedy that.”
How Can We Improve Sleep as We Grow Older?
The first thing to know, said Walker, is that medication is not the answer. Sleeping pills may help us drift off, but drugged sleep is largely lacking in the natural sleep cycles that are best for our brains. “The American College of Physicians has acknowledged that sleeping pills should not be the first-line kneejerk response to sleep problems,” Walker reports. “Sleeping pills sedate the brain, rather than help it sleep naturally. We must find better treatments for restoring healthy sleep in older adults, and that is now one of our dedicated research missions. Don’t be fooled into thinking sedation is real sleep. It’s not.”
Talk to your doctor if you’re having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up feeling refreshed. Your doctor might suggest lifestyle changes, such as a better sleep environment, avoiding caffeine or alcohol, turning off your smartphone and computer late in the day, and getting more exercise, at the right time. You might be referred to a sleep specialist to diagnose the problem and suggest treatments.
Scientific research may lead to better treatments in the future. Experts are studying non-drug solutions such as electrical brain stimulation and the use of acoustical tones that boost deep sleep. So don’t lose sleep over losing sleep! Seek help right away, no matter what your age.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. If you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, discuss the problem with your doctor.