How to Promote Sleep Health and Prevent Insomnia in Older Adults
We all know how it feels to power through the day after not sleeping well the night before. We might feel groggy, moody, and less inclined to make healthy choices like exercise or eating nutritiously.
For some people, getting older means sleeping less, and while less sleep may not always be a cause for concern, experts recommend 7-9 hours a night. If you aren’t consistently getting enough zzz’s and find yourself staring at the ceiling when the rest of the world is sound asleep, don’t worry—there are things you can do to improve your quality and quantity of rest. Prioritizing quality rest can have overarching benefits, such as improved stress management and a better immune response. It can even lower your risk for serious health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
The good news is that you can play an active role in promoting your sleep health and apply these actionable steps to achieve better sleep quality and feel your best.
The Importance of Sleep for Overall Health
Understanding the importance of sleep and the powerful health benefits of a good night’s sleep can be just what you need to take steps to improve your inconsistent or less-than-desirable sleep patterns.
Sleep is considered one of the four pillars of health and is the life-giving fuel your body needs to operate at its best. Sleep to the human body is like gasoline to a vehicle—it simply can’t run without it. Some experts suggest that sleep is the most important component of living a healthy life and that until you get it right, nutrition, movement, and relaxation—the other three pillars—should take a backseat. Let’s dive into the many ways sleep affects our minds and bodies.
Insomnia in Seniors
Up to half of all seniors experience insomnia, a common sleep disorder that prevents falling and staying asleep at night. Insomnia may present differently in different individuals, with symptoms ranging from difficulty falling asleep to waking up frequently, too early, or even not feeling well-rested after sleep. Daytime grogginess, irritability, depression, anxiety, as well as difficulty focusing on tasks or paying attention can be accompanying symptoms of insomnia. A number of changes people experience as they age, such as hormone changes and sleep cycle fluctuations, can make older adults more prone to developing insomnia.
An Increased Risk of Developing Dementia
Studies galore have associated poor sleep with longer-term cognitive decline, including the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Luckily, evidence also suggests that quality sleep can improve short- and long-term cognitive performance.
The Effects of Sleep on Weight Management
Weight management is an increasing challenge as we age, and with obesity being linked to serious health conditions like diabetes and heart disease, understanding the importance of quality sleep on weight management is important.
One study found that when people were sleep deprived, they were more prone to late-night snacking and were more likely to reach for simple carbohydrates like cookies and other sugary treats. In another study at the University of Chicago, sleep-deprived participants opted for snacks with double the fat as those who slept at least 8 hours.
Another study found that too little sleep is linked to eating bigger portions at mealtimes. And in a review of 18 related studies, researchers found that a lack of quality sleep led to more cravings for higher-carbohydrate food.
The takeaway? Sleeping poorly makes you hungrier, more irritable, and more prone to making less-healthy choices, derailing any weight loss progress you’ve been working toward.
Practical Tips to Improve Sleep Quality
By implementing new, healthy sleep habits, you can begin to notice improvements in your sleep in only a few days, if not sooner. But consistency and patience are key! Here are some practical tips to improve your sleep quality.
- Optimize your sleep environment. Even the smallest glimpse of light—from the moon shining into a window or a television—can disrupt your sleep. Optimize your sleep environment by keeping a quiet, dark, and cool bedroom. For optimal sleep, experts suggest a temperature of around 65 degrees.
- Write down tomorrow’s to-do list—today. Oftentimes, tomorrow’s worries and growing to-do list keep us awake at night. A 2018 study found that people who write a to-do list before bed fall asleep faster. Researchers say the mental transfer of upcoming responsibilities before bedtime eased the mind and facilitated more restful sleep. The more specific participants’ to-do lists were, the quicker they dozed off. So, write it all down, and don’t forget to be specific!
- Use bamboo bedding and pajamas. If you wake up sweating in the middle of the night or are prone to hot flashes, try using bamboo bedding and pajamas. Bamboo is a beneficial and durable material that prevents you from overheating. It may cost a little more than microfiber sheets, but it will feel much more comfortable and last much longer.
- Manage your blood sugar. You might be thinking, what does my blood sugar have to do with my sleep quality? A lot, actually. In fact, sleep can affect your blood sugar, and your blood sugar can affect your sleep! One study found that those with higher blood sugar levels had poorer sleep quality. Avoid blood sugar hikes by:
- Consuming a hearty, protein-heavy breakfast in the morning, gradually downsizing your meals throughout the day
- Taking a 20-40-minute walk after meals aids in curbing blood sugar spikes and improves digestion
- Consuming protein and fat before carbohydrates each meal
- Consider a magnesium supplement that not only can blunt blood sugar spikes but can improve sleep quality
- Reducing your sugar and alcohol intake
When to Seek Medical Care for Insomnia or Other Sleep Issues
It’s important to know if and when you should seek medical care for certain sleep issues or symptoms. Call your doctor if:
- Insomnia symptoms exceed four weeks or interfere with your ability to accomplish day-to-day activities or tasks
- You experience shortness of breath or wake up gasping for air as you may need to be tested for sleep apnea or other medical issues
- You started a new medication that is affecting your sleep
- You experience any unusual or painful sensations in your legs while trying to sleep
- You awaken during the night due to physical pain
- You experience changes in your energy, mood, and/or appetite