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Similar to eating healthy and being physically active, sleep plays a pivotal role in overall wellbeing and brain health. The average person spends about one third of their life sleeping (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019). Genetics and environmental factors determine how much sleep each person needs but the Global Council on Brain Health recommends that older adults get seven to eight hours of sleep each night (AARP, 2016).

Stages of Sleep

While we sleep, we rotate through different stages of light and deep sleep. Overall, there are four stages of sleep. Light sleep can be broken down into two different stages. The first stage is right when we fall asleep and can easily be woken up. In the second stage, our body becomes more relaxed and we will not wake as easily. Deep sleep can be categorized in two stages. Stage three is when we enter deep sleep and is characterized by slowed breathing and relaxed muscles. Stage four, also known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, occurs about 90 minutes after we have fallen asleep(Sleep Foundation, 2020).

Older Adults and Sleep

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As we age, we may experience changes to our sleeping patterns, or find it harder to fall asleep. These changes to sleep patterns are a normal part of aging, but that does not mean we need less sleep (Sleep Foundation, 2020). Older adults tend to spend more time in the stages of lighter sleep, and thus may find it harder to stay asleep throughout the night (Sleep Foundation, 2020). In addition, sleep patterns can shift so that we start to get tired earlier and wake up earlier. The quality and quantity of sleep we get can affect health outcomes, moods, and mental health.

Negative Consequences from Lack of Sleep

We may often prioritize other things in our lives over sleep, such as staying up late to watch a television show or getting up early to exercise before the day begins. However, getting enough sleep affects our overall wellbeing and how we function throughout the day. If we do not get enough sleep each night, we may experience the following issues (Cleveland Clinic, 2020).

  • Lack of Alertness
    • Sleep deprivation can impact your alertness and concentration. Even getting up to an hour less of sleep than usual can impact how you feel throughout the day.
  • Daytime Sleepiness
    • Lack of sleep can result in sleepiness throughout the day.
    • Daytime sleepiness paired with a lack of alertness can also create a dangerous situation if you are driving and get sleepy on the road.
  • Impaired Memory
    • Lack of sleep can impact your ability to think, remember, and process information.
    • While this may be a short-term issue, prolonged lack of sleep can have a greater impact on memory and cognition.
  • Relationship Stress
    • When you do not get enough sleep, you may become moodier and lash out at friends or family, causing conflicts and putting strain on these relationships.
  • Health Problems
    • Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to more serious health conditions such as a heart attack, high blood pressure, and obesity.
  • Affected Appearance
    • Chronic sleep loss can also affect your appearance.
    • Over time, wrinkles and dark under-eye circles may appear.

Benefits of Sleep

Sleeping for seven to eight hours each night can help you stay physically and mentally well, as it allows our bodies and minds to rest and recuperate. Here are a few health benefits of sleep (Asbury, n.d.).

  • Lowers Risk of Diseases
    • Not getting enough sleep each night can increase the risk of developing chronic health conditions such has high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
    • When we sleep, our bodies experience muscle growth and tissue repair, which are necessary for a strong immune system.
    • Having a strong immune system allows our body to fight diseases and avoid illness.
  • Improves Memory and Concentration
    • Getting enough sleep can help our decision-making abilities and long-term memory. Sleep can also help maintain our attention span.
    • Over time, lack of sleep can contribute to cognitive decline and memory loss, and increase the risk of developing dementia.
  • Clears Toxins
    • The brain’s waste disposal system is most active during sleep. This system clears out harmful matter and toxins from our brains.
    • One of the toxins cleared during sleep is thought to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Maintains Weight
    • Getting enough sleep each night is essential to maintaining weight and keeping up a healthy metabolism.
    • Adequate sleep also regulates a hormone involved in stimulating appetite.
    • Sleep deprivation can slow down metabolism, which can lead to weight gain.
  • Boosts Mood
    • Sleep is closely related to mental health. Sleep deprivation can lead to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
    • Conversely, mental health conditions can also affect or lower your quality of sleep.
    • To learn more about mental health and mental illness, read the fact sheet here.

Factors that Affect Sleep

There are several different factors that can affect your quality of sleep and ability to fall asleep. Oftentimes, these factors can be controlled or changed to give us the best sleep possible.

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  • Stress (University of Minnesota, n.d.)
    • Stress can affect how you sleep by keeping you up at night or making it difficult to fall asleep.
    • Stress can come from worrying about work, personal problems, or other frustrations.
  • Environment (University of Minnesota, n.d.)
    • The bedroom environment can impact your quality of sleep.
    • Factors such as lighting, temperature, noise, and how comfortable your bed is affect your sleep.
  • Food (University of Minnesota, n.d.)
    • Different foods can affect how well you sleep at night. For instance, eating spicy or fried foods may upset your stomach and impact your quality of sleep.
    • Caffeine and alcohol can affect sleep patterns.
  • Change in Routine (Kiger, 2020)
    • A disruption in daily routine can also impact your sleep such as waking up earlier than usual, taking a long nap during the day or staying up later.

Medical Causes of Sleep Problems (HelpGuide, n.d.)

In addition to the factors mentioned above, underlying medical issues may also affect your sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, ask your doctor if you are taking any medications that may be affecting your sleep, as well as if there are any medications you can take to help you sleep.

  • Diabetes – Those with diabetes whose blood sugar is not well controlled may experience different disruptions to sleep. These can include night sweats, low blood sugar, and the frequent need to urinate.
  • Heart Failure – People with heart failure may wake up during the night while experiencing shortness of breath. These nighttime awakenings can cause daytime sleepiness and worsen heart failure.
  • Arthritis – Pain from arthritis can make it harder to fall asleep or move around during sleep. In addition, using steroids to treat arthritis may cause insomnia.

Tips to Improve Sleep

    • Sleep at a reasonable hour (Kaysen, 2019)
      • Even if you are able to sleep in, try to wake up at the same time every day.
    • Track your sleep (Purple Staff, 2020)
      • Smartwatches like Apple Watches can track your sleep patterns and tell you how long you have been sleeping.
      • There are various smartphone apps that can help you track your sleep and improve the way you sleep.
        • These apps can measure your time and quality of sleep by tracking factors such as movement, heart rate, sound, lighting, and noise.
        • The information the apps track can lead to a better understanding of what causes poor sleep and what factors may be affecting your quality of sleep.
      • Some popular apps include Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock, FitBit, Sleep Genius, and Pillow.
    • Exercise (Kaysen, 2019)
      • Exercising in the morning can help you get a deeper sleep at night.
      • Exercising in the afternoon can help reduce insomnia.
      • Avoid exercising too late at night as this can make it harder to get tired.
    • Avoid alcohol and caffeine (Kaysen, 2019)
      • Both alcohol and caffeine can affect your sleep.
      • Choose to drink water instead. However, try not to drink water too close to when you sleep to avoid midnight bathroom trips.
    • Get comfortable (Kaysen, 2019)
      • A warm shower or bath before sleeping can help relax muscles.
      • Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature. Be aware that heat can hinder sleep.
    • Follow a pre-sleep routine (Kiger, 2020)
      • Find ways to relax before you go to sleep.
      • Limit light intake, especially from electronic devices, an hour before you sleep.

We may often forget how important sleep is, even though it is a part of our everyday lives. Take this time to revisit your sleeping habits and cycles. Remember, older adults should aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. We may also have to navigate changing sleep patterns and adjust to getting tired earlier and waking up earlier. Try incorporating some of the tips to improve our quality of sleep. Remind yourself of the benefits a good night’s sleep can bring for your overall wellbeing.

Sources

AARP. (2016). Sleep and Brain Health. Retrieved on August 17, 2020 from https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/global-council-on-brain-health/sleep-and-brain-health/

Asbury. (n.d.). The Importance of Sleep for Older Adults. Retrieved on August 17, 2020 from https://www.asbury.org/blog/sleep-benefits-for-seniors/

Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep (And How Much You Really Need a Night). Retrieved on August 20, 2020 from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/happens-body-dont-get-enough-sleep/

Harvard Health Publishing. (2019). How much sleep do we really need? Retrieved on August 17, 2020 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

HelpGuide. (2020). Medical Causes of Sleep Problems. Retrieved on August 26, 2020 from https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/medical-causes-of-sleep-problems.htm

Kaysen, R. (2019). The Science of Sounder Sleep. Retrieved on August 17, 2020 from https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2019/latest-sleep-research.html

Kiger, P.J. (2020). Pandemic is Turning Some Older Adult Telecommuters Into Insomniacs. Retrieved on August 20, 2020 from https://www.aarp.org/work/working-at-50-plus/info-2020/work-from-home-insomnia.html

Purple Staff. (2020). The Best Sleep Tracker Apps for iOS and Android. Retrieved on August 26, 2020 from https://purple.com/blog/best-sleep-tracker

Sleep Foundation. (2020). Aging and Sleep. Retrieved on August 17, 2020 from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/aging-and-sleep

University of Minnesota. (n.d.). What Affects Sleep? Retrieved on August 20, 2020 from https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/enhance-your-wellbeing/health/sleep/what-affects-sleep