As we age, our sleep patterns change. We may have trouble falling asleep, or we may find ourselves waking during the night and being unable to get back to sleep – and those seemingly ever-increasing trips to the toilet in the night don’t help matters either! Or we may simply feel like sleeping more during the day and less at night.
The science behind sleep is complex, as it is largely connected to the workings of our brains. But what is clear (for all ages) is that lack of sleep, or poor quality of sleep, can have a detrimental effect on our health, wellbeing, mood and concentration levels. In fact, lack of sleep has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes and other diseases, so it’s worth looking at how we can improve our sleep.
Why does ageing affect sleep?
We all have an internal body clock in the brain, which controls our circadian rhythms. As we get older, deterioration in the function of the physiological body clock can disrupt circadian rhythms and hence influence when we feel tired or alert. Changes in hormones can also play a role in disrupted sleep. As we age, we produce less melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep at night.
It also gets slightly more complicated as we age, as we typically may be dealing with other mental and physical health conditions and also taking medications. The side effects of these medications can contribute to sleep issues. Our change in lifestyle during retirement can also be a factor – we may be working less outside of the home, or we may be feeling more socially isolated. All of these can contribute to sleep issues.
Dr Rosie Gibson from the School of Psychology at Massey University has been studying sleep in older people for many years. She says there are guidelines on how much sleep we should get, but there are also many other dimensions to what constitutes good sleep. “Although it is well known that as we get older, our sleep typically becomes lighter and more fragmented, sleep duration and sleep regularity are also important and should be prioritised to support sleep as well as waking mental health and social wellbeing.”