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The Role Of Sleep In Promoting Healthy Aging
It is a well-established fact that sleep is important for good health. As parents, we worry over how much sleep our children are getting, but do you need less sleep as you get older? The fact is, good sleep is important at every age, and there is a strong link between adequate sleep and aging well. Here, we discuss why sleeping is important, and what can be done to improve sleep quality as we age.
The Importance of Sleep for Health
Sleep has an impact on many facets of our health, including our immune system and our hormonal balance. Additionally, when we sleep our bodies undergo neurobiological processes that impact our brain health, influencing mood, energy level, and cognition. Physiological changes in the brain during sleep strengthen memories formed during the day, promote the consolidation of experiences and ideas, and affecting our capacity or new learning. Good sleep helps enhance focus and help improve our problem-solving abilities and creativity.
Sleep Cycles and Their Importance
How is all of this accomplished while we are sleeping? There are five different cycles of sleep, and we alternate through them during the course of a night. REM (rapid eye movement) is the phase of sleep in which we dream, and the other four phases are non-REM sleep. These four phases help our bodies recover and contribute to building our immune system, as well as gathering our memories in a disorganized kind of way. REM sleep fine tunes the gathered memories, and there is an increase in the activity of limbic structures that are involved in memory and emotional regulation. During REM sleep, our voluntary muscles are paralyzed to keep us from acting out our dreams. Getting sufficient sleep ensures that we cycle through all of the stages, so that we get the full benefits of the processes that occur during sleep.
Sleep and Aging
Looking into sleep and aging, we find that older people have less REM sleep, and less of the slow wave sleep that helps consolidate memories. Further, older people are vulnerable to sleep disturbances like insomnia and sleep apnea. Unfortunately, sleep apnea has been linked with an increase of amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s disease often experience sleep issues, with insomnia at night and excessive day sleeping. It’s a vicious cycle, in fact; sleep disturbances increase amyloid deposits in the brain, which compromise sleep quality.
Babies sleep all the time, and our sleep needs decrease as we age, so that by the time we reach young adulthood, we typically only need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Interestingly, after that the sleep recommendations don’t change. Older adults need the same amount of sleep as younger adults. Most seniors, however, do not get that much sleep. So, why do older people sleep so much less than they should? In addition to insomnia and sleep apnea, seniors tend to have more nighttime awakenings and report shorter overall duration of sleep than younger people. Older adults are also at risk of depression, which can interfere with sleep. Seniors with higher levels of depressive symptoms have been shown to be at higher risk for chronic medical conditions like high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis, and more.
If you are an older adult and having trouble getting enough sleep, it is worth talking to your doctor. Seniors who get sufficient sleep report better cognitive function, improved memory, and better mental health. This is crucial in preventing age-related cognitive decline and dementia. A recent Canadian study found that otherwise healthy people often experience disturbed sleep before showing other indications of dementia. Sleep isn’t just good for mental health, though; it also has an impact on physical health.
Sleep and Health Risks
Poor sleep increases the risk of many different conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. There is evidence that poor sleep can occur because of ill health but can also trigger processes that lead to disease and biological aging. Research indicates that regularly sleeping less than six hours a night is linked with poor health and a higher risk of death. In one study, participants were partially deprived of sleep for one night of sleep, and researchers found that the participants’ blood indicated deterioration in the cell’s growth and division cycle. This suggests that too little sleep can increase biological aging, thereby increasing the risk of chronic disease. There are also studies that show a link between inflammation in the body and poor sleep, and that insufficient sleep can lower immunity, decreasing resistance to viruses like the common cold.
It may surprise you to learn that some of the changes linked to poor sleep begin in middle age. One study of over 600 adults with an average age of 45 reported their typical sleep duration and then performed MRI scans on their brains five years later. The brains of the short sleepers, as compared to the brains of those who slept six to eight hours each night, had significantly higher concentrations of white matter hyperintensities, arterial hardening that has been linked to stroke and vascular dementia.
Strategies for Better Sleep
Aging puts us all at higher risk for disease and cognitive decline. If we are proactive about optimizing the quality and duration of our sleep, though, we can reduce our risk of disease and promote healthy aging. So, how can you get a better night’s sleep? First, maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule. When you always go to bed and wake up at the same time, you are more likely to wake up feeling refreshed. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet, and eliminate any distractions that could prevent you from falling asleep or wake you up once you’ve fallen asleep. Dim the lights two hours before bed and stop using electronics at least an hour before bedtime. Try not to consume any caffeine in the eight hours before you go to bed, as caffeine can make you restless. Avoid alcohol prior to bed, as well, because it can keep you from falling asleep or wake you up after you have fallen asleep. Alcohol and caffeine also affect the functions in your brain that help you get a good night of sleep and wake refreshed in the morning.
Be cautious about daytime sleeping. Naps should be limited to 10 to 20 minutes, because while napping can increase your overall sleep total, it can prevent you from sleeping at night if you nap too much. Get some exercise early in the day, to promote a healthy mental state and a healthy body that will fall asleep more quickly. Don’t go to bed until you are sleepy, and if you find you are having trouble fall asleep, get up and do something relaxing until you begin to feel like you can sleep. You might try having a soothing cup of tea or read a book, but do not do anything that involves electronics, because this can be disruptive.
Talk to your doctor if you are still having trouble keeping a regular sleep schedule. Your doctor may recommend taking one to two milligrams of melatonin about two hours before you go to bed. Melatonin is not a sleep aid, but just helps promote a feeling of tiredness to help you wind down before bed.
Another way to get a good night’s sleep is to have the right mattress. Since 1972, Orange County Mattress has been providing exceptional customer service and, most importantly, a good night’s sleep. At our family-owned and operated business, three generations of ownership are still working daily in our stores, in our warehouse, and in customer service. When you are seeking a good night’s sleep, stop by our showroom for personal service and expert advice from our experienced sleep consultants. We offer next-day local delivery and professional, friendly, informative shopping experiences, all in service of helping people sleep better. For more information, call 949-468-5069, or send us an email.