Getting a good night's sleep in older age


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Sleeping patterns change as we get older, and many people find that they have trouble getting off to sleep, or wake up several times during the night, leaving them tired the next day. If you find it hard to sleep now you're older, these tips may help...

Health problems
While the occasional poor night's sleep is unlikely to affect you much, too many sleepless nights can take their toll on your health, affecting everything from memory to blood pressure. Research shows that people with insomnia are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, heart failure and diabetes.

Sleep deprivation can ruin your mood, leading to problems within relationships, and affect your appetite, making you more likely to crave unhealthy foods and put on weight. You're also more likely to suffer from falls or have an accident.

While it's common for older people to struggle to get their shut-eye, experts say that we need the same amount of sleep as we did when we were younger. It's best to see your GP if you're having trouble sleeping. Your doctor can also check to see if an underlying health condition or your current medication, such as HRT or beta-blockers, are causing a problem.

Calming your mind
Insomnia is more common in women than men, and tends to worsen with age. Stress and anxiety can affect our ability to sleep, so if there is something troubling you, talk it over with a friend or family member. Worries always seem bigger in the middle of the night – no matter what age you are. If you can't sleep because something is bothering you, try making a list of your problems. Then put it out of your mind – confident that you'll think about it properly/try to find a solution in the morning.

Alternatively, The Silver Line (0800 4708090) is a free confidential helpline providing information, friendship and advice to older people, open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. You may also find it helpful to listen to a meditation/relaxation CD before going to sleep and having a warm bath before bed. Exercise, such as yoga or tai chi, is a good way to combat stress during the day - but don't exercise in the evening, as it can be too stimulating.

Tips for sleep
Light exposure can cause a shift in your body clock, so make sure that your bedroom is dark. If you wake up during the night or in the early hours of the morning, it's best to use low-level lighting (as long as you can see safely) when going to the bathroom. Putting on a bright light can affect your sleep rhythms, making it harder to nod off again.

Even if you have broken sleep, try to stick to a regular routine. That means going to bed at the same time each night and not 'lying in'. If you do doze during the day, try to take a nap around the same time. If you sleep for a long time during the day, try cutting back on naps, to see if it makes a difference at night.

Make sure that your bed and bedding is comfortable. If necessary, consider investing in a new mattress and pillows. The room should be on the cool side (but not cold) and dark. It's best not to have a TV or computer in the bedroom. Studies show that the blue light they emit can cause sleep problems.

What to eat
Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the evening and don't eat a heavy meal late at night. If you feel hungry before bed, have a small turkey sandwhich or a banana with a glass of warm milk and honey. Turkey and bananas both contain tryptophan, an amino acid that the body uses to produce serotonin, which slows nerve activity, calming the brain and promoting relaxation. At night, the brain converts serotonin to melatonin, which regulates sleep. A fast-releasing carbohydrate like honey stimulates the release of insulin, which in turn allows more tryptophan to enter the brain, helping you to feel drowsy.

Get up for a bit
If you wake up in the night and can't get back to sleep after 20 minutes, try reading or listening to the radio for a while. Don't do anything too involved, such as work or housework, and don't turn on the television. Try going back to bed 20-30 minutes later.

Treatment options
If you've only recently encountered a problem, over-the-counter remedies may prove useful, as long as you don't take them on a regular basis. If you've been suffering with insomnia for more than four weeks and self-help measures don't help, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Your GP will probably ask you about your sleeping habits, advise you on sleep hygiene and may ask you to keep a sleep diary. They may suggest a short course of sleeping tablets to help you catch up with some sleep, but these aren't recommended for long-term use as they don't tackle the underlying causes of insomnia and can be addictive. If you're over the age of 55 your doctor may also prescribe medication containing Melatonin – a naturally-occurring hormone that helps to regulate the sleep cycle.

Depending on the severity/length of the problem, you may be referred to a cognitive behavioural therapist for insomnia, which can help you to break patterns of behaviour that may be interfering with sleep. If things still don't get better, they may refer you to a sleep specialist, who will be able to check for other problems, such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnoea, which may be causing an issue.

Do you have trouble sleeping at night? Leave a comment below...

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