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The importance of sleep for the elderly

Changing sleep patterns are a normal fact of life when we age. We tend to get tired sooner, wake up earlier in the morning, and are not able to stay up as long as in our youth.

Key points:

  • Chronic health conditions in old age can impact your quality of sleep

  • A minimum of seven and a half hours of sleep is recommended for an older person

  • A nap in the morning can wake up your system as long as it doesn't go over 45 minutes

Older woman about to go to sleep in bed
​It’s always recommended to get seven and a half hours to nine hours worth of sleep every night. [Source: iStock]

One thing that is not normal as we age, is experiencing daily exhaustion. That includes either not being able to fall asleep or having insomnia like symptoms.

Sleep will always be just as important to your mental and physical wellbeing as it was when you were a child and throughout your adult life. It helps your body and mind to recharge so you can be refreshed and alert during the day and allow your brain to function properly. 

It’s important to take action when your body is starting to tell you things are not okay whether that’s through long nights of little sleep or feelings of constant exhaustion.

Health benefits of sleep

Getting shut-eye has a myriad of health benefits for your body and mental health.

Good sleep is directly linked to memory and data retention, and can affect your level of concentration through the day.

If you don’t get enough sleep, it can be difficult for your body to repair any cell damage overnight and doesn't give your immune system a rest.

Sleep also is a good preventative for major diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer in women.

Causes of bad sleep

As mentioned before, the sleeping patterns of older people do change, you are more likely to sleep less deeply and wake up frequently through the night. It is also why older people tend to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. This is due to a change of an older persons' hormonal release, which makes you sleepy earlier in the day.

Sleep disorders can be another barrier to reaching dreamland. Insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless legs syndrome can be major hurdles to reaching a good night's sleep. They can also have a really big impact on your physical and mental health.

If you are starting to feel exhausted every day, visit your GP or any medical professional to see if there may be an underlying health problem impacting your sleep.

Poor sleep does show

If you are tired because you aren't getting enough shut-eye, you will definitely feel, and see, when you are fatigued.

People with chronic poor sleep generally suffer from a multitude of health issues. And these medical issues, in turn, can affect your sleep when you are older, like arthritis, asthma, heart or lung conditions, or urinary tract problems.

Think of sleep as like charging your phone. If you are constantly running at 10 percent, you are not going to be able to get much done through the day, and if you do, it will all be rushed.

Some common side effects of poor sleep include:

  • Stress

  • Low mood

  • Forgetfulness

  • Lack of focus and motivation

  • Tiredness

  • Irritability

Your attention and memory are linked to good sleep habits as well, so while the odd “nanna nap” is okay, if you get into the habit constantly, it will muck around with your nighttime sleep patterns and impact other important day to day motor skills.

How much shut-eye do I need a night?

It’s always recommended to get seven and a half hours to nine hours worth of sleep every night.

Often children need more sleep than older people. Funnily enough, a person over the age of 65 needs the same amount of sleep as a young adult.

But it is important to gauge how you personally feel in the morning. Do you feel well-rested? Do you still feel tired throughout the day?

Make sure to check in with your body and how it’s feeling so you can deal with any underlying problems that may be causing poor sleep quality.

Tips for a better sleep

The most important tip is to get on top of any health problems you may have, which might rectify any current issues you are having with your sleep.

Other tips include:

  • Setting a sleep schedule that fits yourself and your partner. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Unfortunately, this can mean no sleep-ins on the weekend!

  • Reducing loud noises, like snoring, can improve your sleep. If you do have a partner who snores, getting assistance from medical professionals to fix the problem can help both older people. Otherwise, you can try wearing earplugs at night, using a white noise machine for consistent background sound, or sleeping in separate rooms.

  • Start your wind-down process early. This could mean having the last few hours of your night full of calming things, like a bath, playing relaxing music, doing meditation, or reading a book before bed.

  • Reduce your screen time. Watching television or looking at your phone doesn't help your body switch off at night, as it can cause your body to stay awake. Try turning off all devices an hour or two before you head to bed.

  • Don't depend on aids or medication to help you sleep. Many people may use sleeping pills or other aids as a crutch to help them get to sleep, but in the long run, it can sometimes make the situation worse. Only take medication if it is recommended by your doctor.

  • Cuddle before bed! Physical intimacy between partners can actually result in deeper sleep.

  • During the day, if you need it, it's okay to have a 'nanna nap'. To have the best nap, try to have a nap between 5 to 45 minutes. Any longer can leave you more tired than before. Also, try to avoid napping in the afternoon because this may impact your sleeping habits.

  • Your diet and exercise can also impact your sleep habits. It is ideal to monitor your intake of foods with lots of sugar or caffeine, and try to keep a healthy diet overall with regular exercise.

What tips do you have for falling asleep? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Keep mobile and stay independent
The importance of elderly nutrition
Mental health services for older people in aged care

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