Some people believe our sleep is less restorative as we age, that our REM cycles are shorter and more frequently disrupted. I tend to agree with this when I find myself trotting a la toilette three times a night, but other times I wonder if it might just be a cliché about us elders and our sleep.
For one, my sleep isn’t any less rewarding just because it’s interrupted, nor do my cohorts have trouble dragging their fannies out of bed in the morning. Granted, my non-scientific look-see doesn’t make it so, for sure! For sure! But it got me interested enough to look deeper into sleep as we age.
Why I’m Interested
Part of my curiosity stems from all the wonderful sleep I’m having and how rested I feel in the morning and happily alert at night. Plus, I haven’t been craving an afternoon nap; it’s an indulgence I enjoy every once in a while, but not a necessity to make it through my day. This is new for me!
Up until about two months ago I was overly stressed. I was worried about fires in my community and being unable to hear warning alarms while I slept without my hearing aids. I worried I wouldn’t be able to corral my cat to evacuate if needed, and, like anyone would, I feared for the loss of my home and all my possessions. Plus, I slept in a room that, at best, could only get semi-dark. Stairs made it tricky to maneuver, especially if I was rushing. While I knew my sleep was compromised, I didn’t focus on it because there was nothing I could do.
Picture me now: I’ve downsized into a senior living community apartment where I will be awakened and whisked away (with my cat!) by someone on staff should the need arise. Also, my room is dark, but not so dark that I can’t easily find my way to the bathroom. Plus, my apartment is all on one level; no worries about stairs. I’m sleeping like a baby!
What’s the big deal about sleep or lack thereof?
The BBC reports “A lack of sleep can have a long-term impact on the immune system and on many other aspects of health, including well-being, as well as leading to daytime sleepiness and an increased risk of accidents. But maybe people simply don’t need as much sleep when they’re older and needn’t worry about it.”
Since March 2020, scientists have shown the positive effects of melatonin, the sleep hormone, on COVID. It plays a part in calibrating the immune system which moderates our self-protective responses from going haywire—which happens to be the basic problem that can quickly turn a mild case of COVID-19 into a life-threatening scenario. Positive outcomes of melatonin and improved sleep continue to exist for people who survived the virus, and these studies continue to show the positive effects of sleep.
So, is it true that the quality of our sleep deteriorates as we age?
I’ve read that a quarter to a third of all older adults experience insomnia routinely. Exactly how much sleep older people need isn’t easy to quantify. Obviously, it varies significantly from person to person and circumstance to circumstance.
We could also talk about circadian rhythms, slow-wave activity in the brain, REM patterns, and body clocks, to name a few. Granted, these are all important in the study of sleep. My guess, however, is that sleep –- good or not so great –- has just as much to do with what’s going on in our life.
Sleep is complicated
I can name a thousand things that result in less than satisfying sleep from depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, and conditions that cause discomfort and pain, such as arthritis, to what you had for dinner, stress, illness, your bladder, and what is going on in your life at this time.
I can also list a thousand things that result in feeling rested after sleeping. These include, to name a few, a weighted blanket, staying away from alcohol, and rich or spicy food, exercise, meditation, the darkness of your room, and what is going on in your life at this time.
I want to stress the “what is going on in your life” situation in this post. Unless you, in fact, have a serious illness related to sleep or lack thereof, a sleep issue is more annoying than harmful, and it’s cyclical. Say you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a week and you’re scared you might never have one again. Trust me, the day –- or night –- will come and you will wake up realizing you slept and feel rested. You might be able to stack a few of these good days together. Maybe not. And, of course, the same with having wonderful sleep like I’m having now; it probably won’t last.
I’m suggesting you consider the quality of your sleep relative to what is going on in your life. We’re all stressed these days for obvious reasons and this impacts our sleep. But what is going on in your life beyond those universal stresses?
If you have sleep issues, I suggest you look into what is going on in your life to contribute to those issues. Perhaps it IS just due to the aging process and changes in your sleep patterns. It might be something else, however. Like my situation, it could be stress or the darkness of the room or anxiety about being less social, less useful, less vital, less everything. World events in recent times have been known to play a bigger role in our sleep patterns and in our health, in general. I would suggest that you read about sleep (doing so might put you right to sleep), discuss it with your doctor if you need to, and compare your situation to what others your age are experiencing.
And, if you think I’m sort of bonkers to deviate away from the science of sleep, well, I’ll cogitate on it … as I fall asleep tonight.
We all go through sleep phases, regardless of age. I’m grateful right now to be in a good one. I’ll appreciate riding this out until something else comes along.
Hi, Antonia! Thanks for this humorous look at a problem everyone has from time to time. I have found sleep to be cyclical, along with other things such as energy, mood, etc. I chock it up to the old hormone activation. When I’m in a phase I don’t like, it’s hard to be patient with it, but it does change. One caveat–I have also gone through true insomnia where I have not been able to even doze for two weeks. This is highly anxiety producing and is also caused by anxiety. For people who experience this, a trip to the doctor for some anti-anxiety medication is a must. That much sleep deprivation, coupled with the anxiety, can really get you in trouble.
Thanks for your experiences, Christine. I can’t imagine how frustrating for any sleep issue to go on for two weeks. I appreciate when modern medicine can help us even out the extremes. Cheers!