Recently, I sat down and talked to Dr. Rosemary Gibson, a clinical sleep researcher at Massey University in Wellington, about her area of expertise: sleep and its importance for well-being with aging.
Rosemary and I talked a little about what motivated her to specialise in the area of sleep, how the importance of sleep changes as we grow older, and we addressed some of the common myths about sleep that we sometimes hear.
I’ve recorded our conversation, and hope to release it as a podcast on our website in the near future.
In the meantime, I thought I’d quickly sum up some of the interesting points we discussed or what I learned when preparing for our chat.
Sleep patterns change through-out our lives
Although the optimum ‘suggested’ time recommendation for sleep doesn’t vary too much as we grow older (somewhere around 8-10 hours a night), how we get that sleep may do so.
As we age, our sleep patterns may change. We may find it hard to go to sleep and/or we may waken more during the night, or earlier in the morning. We may have periods in the early hours where we are awake. This can result in less quantity, or more disturbed sleep, with the feeling of waking having not had a restful sleep. We may find that we need to nap sometimes in the day to catch up or get by.
Sleep disturbance doesn’t just affect us physically
When sleep disturbance is more than an occasional event, it affects us physically. Over time, it can lead to more of an increased risk of serious medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and a shortened life expectancy (1).
Also, sleep disturbance affects us mentally and emotionally. We’ve probably all had days where a lack of sleep has made us irritable and moody the following day. Longer term, it can contribute to anxiety and depression.
What I hadn’t considered, was how sleep disturbance could affect us socially. If a lack of sleep or change in sleep patterns means that we’re finding ourselves so tired that we cannot continue with our usual social activities and engagements, then this can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
When sleep disturbance isn’t occasional.
In my discussion with Rosemary, she emphasised to me the need for people not to panic when sleep patterns change. Worrying about periods of wakefulness or sleep disturbance will likely only make it more acute.
However, it is important to be aware of any longer term patterns, and to seek appropriate medical advice when it becomes an ongoing issue. It may be that it is a sign or a symptom of another underlying condition (for example, sleep apnea, which may be able to be addressed relatively easily).
Measures that may help in getting a ‘good’ night’s sleep.
Some of these tips may help:
Avoid stimulants (such as caffeine etc) and sedatives (such as alcohol) in the hours leading up to sleep. (Interestingly, that glass of red wine after dinner and before bed may be delicious and lead us to believe that we are falling asleep and getting a good night’s sleep easily, but it affects the quality of sleep we get and most likely makes us more tired in the morning).
Reduce bright light before sleep (e.g. TV, laptops, phones)
Try to increase the amount of bright light and exercise around lunchtime/ early afternoon in contrast to a ‘darker’ light and more quieter time towards dinner time and nighttime.
If you wake ‘early’ in the morning, try to do some quiet activity (such as reading a book in bed) rather than starting your day very very early (as this may have a cascading effect, resulting in a change to your natural circadian rhythm over time).
Keep a sleep diary so that you can identify what activities, food and environmental factors may affect your sleep duration and quality, and so you can identify if sleep disturbance is becoming a chronic problem.
See your doctor and ask for a referral to a clinical sleep specialist if problems persist or you have any concerns about your sleep.
This is only a tiny snapshot of what Rosemary and I discussed, and I look forward to publishing our chat soon.
The content of this article is the personal view of the author, and is not intended as medical advice. The author is not a licensed medical professional, and this article is not specific medical advice. We recommend that if you have a pre-existing condition, which may be affected by low impact exercise, we recommend you seek the advice of your doctor or specialist before commencing any of our exercise routines.