It can be easy to overlook the importance of sleep- after all, it takes so long and there is so much to do! As we get older, we might even feel like we need less sleep, but this is due to a natural change in our circadian rhythm- the body’s natural sleep cycle. We may go to bed earlier and wake up earlier, or take more naps throughout the day as we age. However, according to the CDC, older adults need the same amount of sleep as teenagers and adults under 65- about 7 hours of sleep per night, sometimes more or less.
The Importance of Sleep for Senior Health
Sleep is important for staying healthy through all stages of life. Throughout scientific history, numerous research studies have shown many times over that sleep deprivation has severe consequences on many bodily functions. Our brains seem to be the first organ to be impacted when we lose sleep, and we immediately feel the effects in social situations or when we need to use our memory. Many of us can’t quite function without the kick of caffeine in the morning, including this writer, and so it’s easy to see how our brains being less than 100 percent awake can lead us to experience a drop in concentration, mood, and ultimately our productivity and happiness.
Benefits of Sleep
It is vital that we get enough sleep in order to maintain optimum health, as well as brain function during the day. Multiple studies show that working daytime memory is hugely affected when we get less than seven hours of sleep. Sleep is vital for the regeneration of our bodies various cellular systems, and we need at least seven hours of sleep for our organs, skin, hormones, and brains to stay in tip-top shape.
Sleep and Brain Health
When sleep becomes disrupted for any reason, the first thing to go is our memory. Our brains need sufficient sleep and to move through all of the stages of sleep, or else ultimately cognitive processes will begin to shut down. The least important aspects of daily life, to our brains anyway, is short-term memory. Short-term memory is actually turned into long-term memory through a process called encoding as we sleep, and research shows that sleep-deprivation can reduce memory recall capability up to 40 percent. So it appears that our day-to-day memory abilities really do depend on the quality of our sleep.
Sleep and Heart Health
Research conducted across the globe verifies sleep is intricately linked to the health of our hearts. Exercise can be a panacea for heart health as well as sleep- cardiovascular exercise not only strengthens the heart but helps the body rest better at night. Obesity is linked to sleep, though the reasons may not be exactly understood. According to recent research, 8 percent of adults up to age 85 who reported sleeping less than 7 hours a night were also overweight.
Sleep and Immune Health
Scientists have compared T-cell levels during the 4 stages of sleep, and found some very interesting results- the body undergoes various processes in our immune systems while we sleep that isn’t easily achievable while we’re awake and moving around. Our immune system is comprised of a network of veins similar to and lying along our blood veins- these veins carry T-cells and other immune bodies throughout the body to lymph node points, as well as transfer disease-fighting cells to and from our bone marrow. When we sleep, the immune system is able to process toxins, working to clean our bodies from potential carcinogens as well as a myriad of diseases. If we go too long without sleep, this process won’t occur and we will get sick and stay sick longer.
Sleep and Cancer
A 2017 study found that women with a higher number of breast cancer receptor cells in breast tissue tend to get less sleep than study participants with a lower risk of developing cancer. Extensive research in the field of sleep has shown that when we are going through the different sleep cycles, cell regeneration is occurring throughout the body, clearing out old cells and replacing them with new, potentially healthier cells, replacing cells with markers for diseases like Alzheimer’s as well as cancer.
Sleep and Mental Health
Extensive research has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that healthy sleep is critical to mental health. For example, when women are polled about how they feel about themselves, results are consistently higher when participants had a full nights rest. Recent studies suggest that couples should avoid discussing important or hot topics if either of the two has had a bad night. This means that while we may feel able to function perfectly well after having a bad night’s sleep, we are actually prone to snapping, being less forgiving, and faster to anger when in stressful situations. According to research done by Harvard University, sleep deprivation has far-reaching implications when it comes to mental health.
Sleep and Diabetes
Unexplained sleeping issues may be due to diabetes. Recent research shows a connection between diabetes and sleep apnea, along with other sleep disturbances. In addition to nighttime sleep potentially being disturbed by diabetes, it is known that the dysregulation of insulin in diabetic patients makes them tired and groggy throughout the day. The best way to verify that diabetes isn’t what is causing the sleeping issue we’re facing is to go to the doctor and have a metabolic panel done.
What You Need for a Good Night’s Sleep
Check out our list of 9 ways to get a more satisfying nights rest, and hopefully you’ll find new ways to improve your sleep.
Keep your bedroom a peaceful environment used only for relaxation and sleep.
Many people could benefit greatly from clearing their rooms of clutter and letting it be reserved strictly for relaxational purposes. Removing electronics that emit blue light and remind us to be productive can help us actually relax, and there are many ways to create a sleep-conducive environment for any taste. Blackout curtains can be hung over windows to keep the room dark and your favorite possessions can decorate the room to help you keep happy thoughts as you drift off. Serene art or favorite mandalas can be hung on the wall, and a humidifier can add comforting moisture to the air as well as carry essential oils like lavender and chamomile, proven to help people sleep.
Exercise has been proven to improve sleep.
While it is a controversial idea, because research shows that exercising too close to bedtime can be counter-productive when your goal is to sleep, there is concrete evidence that regular exercise improves the quality and length of nightly sleep. Research backs up the obvious implications of less sleep; less energy means we won’t be able to exercise very much. It’s perfectly fine to start easy and build up your energy reserves slowly- long walks through the neighborhood in the evening may not be very stimulating for the cardiovascular system, but eventually, you can turn those walks into blood-pumping runs.
Studies show that daytime naps actually improve the length and quality of nighttime sleep.
Many studies have been done on first responders like firefighters and police that show a 40-minute nap before a shift can improve performance up to 34 percent and alertness by 100 percent. In the elderly, naps right after meals in the evening have been shown to lengthen sleep at night as well as helping senior have a deeper sleep with less waking up.
Make sure your diet isn’t contributing to your lack of sleep.
Obviously, stimulants like caffeine and nicotine are counter-productive to good sleep, but there are a few surprising factors in your diet that may be hurting your sleep. The latest research indicates that body chemistry is different for everyone and the true factor in how certain foods will affect us- a physical with your primary care physician is the best way to find out if there are any nutritional deficiencies or dietary concerns that you could change to improve your sleep. Old wives tales like warm milk may help you get comfortable to sleep, but there is little evidence to indicate that any particular food actually promotes sleep.
Check to make sure your sleep isn’t being negatively affected by an uncomfortable mattress.
It might seem like a logical connection to make, that an old or simply uncomfortable sleeping surface can disturb a persons sleep, among other mattress issues that could be leading to sleep troubles. Not only do muscles suffer during the day, but so does the mood of the person who had to sleep in, and allergens and mites might even be causing an immune response that is the reason you can’t sleep. It might be a good idea to make sure your mattress isn’t the culprit of your sleeping issues.
Set an evening routine that eases you into a deep slumber and helps you stay asleep.
Every parent knows to make sure a room is kept clear of distractions in order to get their baby to go to sleep and stay asleep- adults are the same way. Make sure light is blocked with blackout curtains, and keep the air comfortable- essential oil diffusing cool-mist humidifiers help you relax even more. Those with noisy environments would benefit from a white noise machine, designed to drown out distracting noises with sounds like ocean sounds, or soothing music. You can also download a white noise app for your phone.
Minimize distractions in the evening by finding ways to decrease your opportunities to stress out, like amping up your planning routine.
When laying in bed, unable to sleep, the thoughts keeping you awake might be the root cause of your sleeplessness. If when trying to count sheep, you see your unpaid bills leaping instead, consider investing your daytime hours in creating a budget that will help set your mind at ease. Nagging fears in the back of your mind cause nighttime stress as well as produce anxiety during waking hours. Easy budgeting tools can be found online if you think this is a solution that might help you. Another tactic is to allow your mind time to play before bed by reading a favorite book but do so in a room separate from your bed so you won’t be tempted to continue reading after you’ve put the book away for the night.
Verify with your doctor that no health issues exist, and ask about possible supplements that could improve your quality of sleep.
While taking too much medication to induce sleep can have detrimental side effects, such as reducing your bodies ability to fall asleep naturally, some substances have been used for centuries to improve nighttime relaxation, promoting deep and natural sleep. Magnolia Bark, traditionally used in Eastern medicine, has been shown to reduce daytime fatigue, increase vigor, and promote relaxation, helping to combat the stress hormone cortisol in the body. Passionflower has been used historically for its sedative effects, which are known to be safe and effective. Melatonin, a natural hormone, plays a vital role in quality sleep, though we may not know exactly how sleep is affected by hormones. Supplements are available that increase melatonin levels, but a word of caution is needed- dementia patients have been known to have adverse reactions in some studies, and some supplements may be unnatural as well as unsafe. Always make sure to thoroughly research any natural supplement you decide to ingest, as well as ask your doctor if you can expect any interactions with your regular medications.