As we grow older, falling and staying asleep gets harder. While changes to your sleep pattern are part of the normal ageing process, it’s easy to feel frustrated tossing and turning through the night.
Sleep works wonders on our mental and physical health, helping us to feel alert and happier, while boosting our immunity and memory. Without good quality kip, we may feel irritable, struggle to concentrate, experience balance difficulties, and can potentially expose ourselves to health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
Experts recommend sleeping for seven to nine hours. Helen Stirrup, occupational health advisor at Stannah, offers her top 10 tips to help you get a good night’s rest so you feel refreshed the next day and can keep on being you.
1. Run a relaxing bath
Set time aside in your evening to ‘wind down’ so you fully relax into sleep. Run a lovely bath, as this is proven to reduce anxiety, ease breathing and soothe aching muscles. Ensure the water is a comfortable temperature, and why not add a little luxury to your bath by using lavender oil? The scent can also help with sleep disorders and restlessness.
2. Read a book
Reading a book is a highly recommended way to drift off, with research showing it reduces stress levels by 68%. An immersive tale can pull you away from any worries that are troubling you. Reading relaxes your muscles and slows your breathing, leaving you feeling calmer. In fact, relaxing in bed was ranked the top place to enjoy a good book (66%) in Stannah’s 2019 Silver Census study of 1,600 UK adults aged 60 and over.
Reading can also boost your brainpower. Just like our bodies, our brains need exercising too and reading is more neurologically challenging than speaking or processing images. The cognitive health benefits don’t stop there - reading can reduce your risk of developing degenerative diseases like Alzheimers. One study found that people who engage their brains by reading or solving puzzles are 2.5 times less likely to develop this illness.
If your grandchildren are staying with you, why not read with them? Stannah’s Silver Census further showed that more than a third of grandparents say that reading with their grandchildren brightened their silver years, with over a quarter taking pleasure in snuggling down to tell fun and fantastical tales at bedtime.
If eyesight has become an increasing hindrance, then listening to an audiobook can help you wind down in just the same way - with the bonus being that you won’t wake up with a book on you!
3. Listen to music
Research shows that older adults who listen to 45 minutes of relaxing music before bed nod off faster, sleep for longer and wake up less frequently during the night. Overall, they consider their nights more restful than when they don’t listen to music.
Calming music can slow your heart rate and breathing rate, lower blood pressure and may even relax your muscles. These biological changes mirror the changes your body experiences when sinking into sleep, making music the perfect prelude to restorative slumber.
4. Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol
When you’re winding down for bed, a hot drink, boozy night-cap or cigarette can all be tempting. However, these are stimulants that stop you feeling tired, promote alertness and increase your heart rate.
Take coffee, for instance. One independent study shows that consuming caffeine six hours before bedtime reduces total sleep time by one hour - and the effects are worse in older adults.
Instead, why not try chamomile, ginger or peppermint tea? A cup of warm milk is just as comforting.
Drinking alcohol reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep happens around 90 minutes after we fall asleep; it’s a ‘restorative’ period, when we commonly dream. Disruptions to this phase of sleep can trigger daytime drowsiness and poor concentration. Alcohol also suppresses breathing and can induce sleep apnea.
5. Avoid a big meal
If you enjoy a big meal before you go to bed, you may feel full and find it harder to get comfortable. Ultimately, your body needs time to digest your food before it can switch off. So, try to eat a larger meal earlier in the day, when you have time to burn the energy before sleep. If you’re feeling peckish, a caffeine or sugar free hot drink may help, otherwise try a healthy snack like a handful of almonds.
6. Turn your bedroom into a ‘sleep oasis’
As the saying goes, “tidy bedroom tidy mind” so clear away any mess. Feeling too hot during the night can disrupt your sleep, so adjust the room temperature if you can too - 18 degrees is ideal. And, shut out the light. For some people, blackout curtains or an eye mask are a sleep saviour. Mood lighting can also really make your bedroom feel like a sanctuary and help your eyes adjust to a dark environment.
7. Stay away from screens
When it comes to sleep, it’s wise to stay away from screens - whether it’s your tablet, television or mobile phone. It’s tempting to tune into your favourite TV show, skype relatives living far away or scroll through your tablet. However, our devices emit a blue light which delays the release of melatonin - the hormone that induces sleep. The blue light actually mimics daylight, making it harder to drift off.
8. Avoid lying in and napping through the day
When we reach retirement age, it’s too easy to stay up later, lie in and nap whenever you please as you have the freedom to do so. However, changing your sleep cycle can disrupt your internal body clock, creating lethargic feelings similar to jet lag. Moreover, if you’re consistently sleeping later at night and through the morning, your day won’t be aligned with your friends and family, leaving you feeling tired when you have plans.
Be firm with yourself; keep busy through the day, be stricter with naps and make time for your relaxing wind-down routine to induce sleep sooner.
9. Stay active during the day
We sleep far better when we’ve burnt energy. Exercising during the day helps to relieve stress and anxiety by reducing stress hormones, so we’re more relaxed for sleep. This could be as simple as a lovely long walk, joining a walking sports club - these are traditional sports like netball and hockey, but at a slower pace - or yoga.
Just ensure you spare time to wind down before bed, as your body temperature needs to cool before sleep.
10. Keep a sleep diary
If you struggle to drift off, or find yourself waking up through the night, record your sleep patterns. Note down when you fall asleep, and how many times you wake up during the night, then at what time you wake up and how rested you feel. After a week, reflect on your notes and look for any patterns. This may help you pinpoint the root of your sleep issues and will be useful to share with a doctor if you’ve decided to seek professional advice.
If falling asleep feels like a lost cause, don’t worry. Sometimes it’s best to listen to your body and get up. Find a change of scene; read your book on the sofa downstairs or carry out a couple of easy jobs, only going back to bed when you start feeling tired.
If your sleep problems last for longer than a month and the techniques above don’t seem to be working, don’t suffer in silence - book an appointment with your GP. What you’re experiencing may be linked to an underlying health issue or be connected to a condition you’re currently dealing with. Your doctor may suggest Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - a popular solution that helps break thought patterns that disrupt day-to-day life.
Trying to sleep shouldn’t be a living nightmare. Simple changes to your routine can make a significant difference. No matter what your age, you deserve to sleep like a baby!
- Sleep Foundation - Aging and sleep
- National Institutes of Health - The benefits of slumber: why you need a good night’s sleep
- Heathline - The effects of sleep deprivation on the body
- Sleep Foundation - What is healthy sleep?
- University of Sussex - Benefits of reading
- Dreams - What does reading before bed do to an adults brain?
- Sleep Foundation - Can music help you calm down and sleep better?
- Sleep Education - Sleep and caffeine