Why Aging Affects Sleep Quality
The vicious cycle begins: Suboptimal sleep throws the sleep-inducing neurochemicals out of whack, and this in turn leads to more suboptimal sleep. Inadequate sleep amps up the inflammatory system and causes you to store excess body fat, both of which increase your chances of getting sick and sleeping less.
Night Quirks You May Experience as You Age
- Our hormonal symphony orchestra is designed to play perk-up music (more cortisol, less melatonin) during the day and to switch to softer wind-down music at night (more melatonin, less cortisol). As we age, this hormonal harmony becomes less sleep-inducing: Cortisol stays higher at night, and melatonin stays lower.
- We enjoy less slow-wave—or deep—sleep. This is the state of sleep in which our immune and repair systems are most active.
- The amount of melatonin that the brain makes during sleep declines with age. Since melatonin is primarily secreted during the stage of deep sleep, the aging brain does not enjoy as much of this sleep aid.
- We tend to put on more belly fat, which itself contributes to hormonal imbalances that disturb sleep.
- Hormone fluctuations during menopause can keep women awake. An enlarged prostate, and the consequent full-bladder sensation, makes men get up to go.
- Quirks in the gut, such as heartburn and indigestion, are also more common as we age and can disrupt sleep patterns.
- Get enough daytime exercise.
Daytime exercise sets up the brain for a more restful sleep at night. Exercise increases the percentage of time you spend in the deep stages of sleep. Morning exercise seems to be best for restful sleep. If you exercise in the evening, try to do so at least three hours before bedtime.
- Eat for sleep.
The brain is highly affected—for better or for worse—by nutrition. So it stands to reason that sleep can also be highly affected—for better or for worse—by what you eat. Some foods help you sleep restfully; others have the opposite effect.
- Forget the nightcap.
For most people, alcohol disrupts sleep rather than induces it. It may cause you to fall asleep faster, but during the night it interferes with sleep cycles, resulting in lower-quality sleep and earlier awakening.
- Scale back on caffeine.
Some people are more caffeine sensitive than others. Since caffeine may take as long as 12 hours to clear your system (the half-life of caffeine is about six hours), get your java jolt in the morning, if you must.
- Have an earlier bedtime.
As we age, our bodies tend to be reset to go to bed earlier and to wake up earlier.
- Don't worry, be sleepy.
Strive for a stress-less evening and relax your brain with meditation or prayer before sleep.
- Go to bed at the same time each night.
People who go to bed at about the same time each night tend to enjoy more restful sleep.
- Have a restful bedtime routine.
Get your brain into the habit of expecting, after following a set routine—brush teeth, bath or shower, turn on music, turn down lights, get into bed, pick up a book—that sleep will naturally happen.
- Set up your bedroom for sleep.
Ideally, the bedroom should be reserved for sleep and sex and nothing else. Keep the bedroom dark, cool, dry and allergen-free.
- Get warm, then cool down.
A warm bath or shower right before bed raises the body temperature. The natural cooling-down process that follows relaxes the body and induces sleep.