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How to Improve Your Sleep As You Age

10th Mar 2021

Sleep is an important aspect of our lives. In fact, we spend a third of our lives sleeping so that’s no small amount of time! Scientists say that a good night’s sleep is important to not only our physical health but our mental well- being as well. It is therefore imperative that we ensure we get enough good quality sleep every night. As we grow older, many changes take place in our bodies, one of which is sleep disturbance. Due to the fact that most of our elderly population is diagnosed with more than one health condition with age, the factors affecting their quality of sleep could be varied.

Our sleep patterns are regulated by the cells found in a part of our brain known as the hypothalamus. The cells control a process known as the Circadian rhythm which is a natural and internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle in our bodies according to the 24-hour day/ night cycle of the earth. This, therefore, means that the Circadian rhythm urges our brains awake when the sun comes up and at night, it stimulates the brain to release Melatonin which is referred to as the sleep hormone. As we grow older, the cells that regulate the sleep-wake cycle also begin to age which could affect our ability to fall asleep, stay asleep through the night or stay alert during the day. Aside from this, many other physical conditions may affect the quality of sleep with age such as; arthritis, heart conditions, pulmonary disease, depression amongst others. 

Several other factors have been found to contribute to the quality of sleep as one grows older. These include;

  • Medication- older people are usually on a cocktail of drugs in order to manage their health conditions. Many of those drugs usually have an impact on sleep such as antihistamines which could cause day time drowsiness and antidepressants which can cause insomnia.
  • Social interactions dwindle as we grow older due to factors like retirement which reduces the need for a structured day and we thus find many of our elderly dozing off during the day and as a result not sleeping too well at night.
  • Other notable life changes like loss of independence and fewer social interactions may lead to feelings of anxiety and depression which can influence the quality of sleep negatively.

Some of the sleep problems experienced include insomnia, sleep apnea (a sleep disorder where breathing repeatedly starts and stops) and other disorders such as restless leg syndrome (a disorder characterized by an irresistible urge to move your leg especially in the evenings). 

How to improve your sleep

Chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to be a major cause of accidents and depression. And with time can even lead to confusion and other mental changes.  Here are some tips that could help you improve your sleep;

  1. Exercise

It has been said time and again that a little bit of movement every day is important to maintain a healthy body. Exercise is an important day time habit that can affect the quality of our lives. Being sedentary may lead to one not feeling sleepy at the end of the day or being sleepy all day. When we exercise, our bodies release feel-good endorphins and our core temperature increases. When that temperature starts to decline, it facilitates sleepiness. When we begin to exercise, we can spot the difference in a day as it helps us sleep better. Exercise has been shown to decrease insomnia and help alleviate sleep-related problems. Regular exercise can also help older people avoid regular falls which can lead to even more health problems. Obesity is one of the main risk factors that cause sleep apnea. One needs to talk to their healthcare provider or fitness instructor about the kind of exercises one can do to avoid injury. 

  1. Diet 

Certain drinks like caffeine and soda have a diuretic effect on our bodies. This is to means that if taken very close to bedtime, they could result in one waking up a number of times in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Additionally, caffeine has been known to act as a stimulant; therefore, if taken right before bed, you may have a harder time falling asleep. This is particularly important to the elderly due to the fact that most people develop urinary incontinence as they grow older. Urinary incontinence is defined by the WHO as an involuntary loss of urine. It can affect people of all ages but gets worse with age. Incontinence is a condition that can be very embarrassing and uncomfortable. There are however ways in which one can manage it such as double voiding (emptying one’s bladder twice within a short period of time to ensure complete emptying), bladder training (setting a bathroom timetable to avoid any bathroom emergencies), doing kegel exercises (to strengthen the pelvic floor), using urinary incontinence underwear.

Another dietary consideration that could be made to improve sleep is ensuring one does not go to bed too hungry or too full. We are advised to eat at least 3-4 hours before our bedtime as this gives the body enough time to work on digestion and focus on sleep ensuring a better night’s sleep. Some scientists have also found that eating a high- carb diet before sleep can induce insomnia. We are therefore advised to watch what we consume during the day and particularly a few hours before bedtime. Some of the healthy foods we can incorporate to better our sleep include; fresh fruit, whole-grain foods, milk, bananas, chicken and foods filled with fiber.

  1. Screens

The world we live in is a digital world and the domination of screens in our lives from phones, television screens, computers, laptops amongst others is immeasurable. These screens have been known to cause a distraction when used at bedtime. It is therefore important to limit screen time before bed. One should think of the bedroom as a sanctuary where they go only to sleep. As mentioned above, the brain views light as a signal to keep alert. Therefore, keeping bright lights away from the bedroom can improve one’s quality of sleep and help you switch between sleep cycles much easier especially blue light sources such as electronics, fluorescent lights and LED lighting. 

  1. Circadian rhythm

Following the information about the importance of the circadian rhythm in the regulation of sleep, it is therefore important to maintain a healthy, regular circadian rhythm. As we grow older, the rhythm shifts back and we tend to feel sleepy earlier and experience daytime drowsiness and wake up earlier. This can be regulated by following the tips mentioned above as well as other lifestyle changes like ensuring we stay awake during the day by exposing ourselves to both natural and artificial sources of light e.g. during winter and avoiding daytime naps by being active and picking up a few daytime activities.  Setting a bedtime and dimming the lights or completely switching them off has been shown to also help induce the release of melatonin which induces a feeling of drowsiness. Sleeping early and sleeping well can help the body go back to a regular sleep/ wake cycle.


  1. Sleep Disorders: Foods That Help Sleep or Keep You Awake,your%20body’s%20blood%2Dbrain%20barrier
  2. Exercising for better sleep
  3. Light and sleep,an%20essential%20sleep%2Dpromoting%20hormone
  4. How to sleep well as you age 

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