A new US study has found around half of people aged 65 to 80 wrongly believe that sleep problems were simply a result of ageing, with one in three using medication to help them sleep at night. The data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging at the University of Michigan also discovered one in 12 had taken sleeping pills – despite national guidelines warning against their use by people aged over 65. Most hadn’t talked to their doctors about their symptoms either – mainly because they didn’t see their sleep issues as a health problem.
But the fact is lack of sleep is not a normal part of ageing – and it can actually be dangerous to your health.
The danger of sleepless nights
Previous studies have linked overtiredness to cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, obesity, stroke, chronic pain, diabetes, heart attacks and more. The World Health Organisation has even classified any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen. But while pain, poor health or stress can keep us awake at night, the researchers say you can do something about it.
Here some suggestions to help you improve the quality and quantity of your sleep:
1. Regular sleep patterns
Help your body to establish a healthy sleep routine by going to bed and waking up around the same time each day.
2. Spend the right amount of time in bed
While 8 hours of sleep is recommended, some people require more and some require less. Try to limit your time in bed to no more than 8.5 hours. So if it takes you a long time to fall asleep, try going to bed later.
3. Bed is for sleep, not screens
Computers, phones and TV can disrupt your sleep. Your mind needs to associate being in bed with sleeping rather than watching TV or using your computer. Don’t stay in bed if you’re wide awake.
4. Relax before bed
Find a relaxation technique that works for you. Try to establish a buffer zone before bedtime where you’re not trying to solve any problems or thinking about tomorrow, but just relaxing and preparing for bed. Try to avoid using your computer and smartphone during the bedtime buffer zone.
5. Ensure you are comfortable in your bedroom
Your room should be the right temperature, as well as quiet and dark. Make sure you have comfortable bedding, and try to keep known stressors out of your bedroom.
6. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes
These substances have far reaching impacts on your physical and mental health, with disrupted sleep being just one. While alcohol might make you sleepy initially, it tends to disrupt your sleep cycle, leading to poorer quality sleep. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that can also prevent you from sleeping.
7. Don’t nap
Unfortunately, sleeping during the day will make it more difficult to nod off at night time. If a nap is really necessary, try and limit the duration to half an hour and make sure you’re up for at least 4 hours before going back to bed.
8. Try not to clock watch
If you can’t sleep, checking the time heightens your anxiety about not sleeping. If possible take the clock out of your room.
9. Try to avoid sleeping tablets
Sleeping pills don’t address the cause of your insomnia and won’t help you long term. Sleeping pills should only be prescribed by a trusted doctor who fully understands the reasons why you might be struggling to get good quality sleep. Your doctor must also keep a close eye on the use of sleeping pills while they are being taken as they are addictive.
10. Ask for help if you need it
If you regularly wake up feeling unrefreshed, are always restless in bed, have trouble getting to sleep or find that being tired is affecting your mood, it might be time to go and see your doctor – two-thirds of the study participants reported that they got useful advice.
If you’re not getting enough shut-eye, it really could save your life.