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Quality sleep is key to good health in later life

12:00am | & Health

There’s nothing better than a good night’s sleep to set you up right for the day ahead. But now new research from Age UK has found that the benefits of quality sleep run much deeper and have long-lasting effects, especially as we get older.

The new report into sleep in later life was conducted by the Global Council on Brain Health in a transatlantic initiative jointly convened by Age UK and the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). It found that in order to maintain a healthy brain and stay mentally sharp, we should make it a priority to get the right amount of sleep in later life.

The report recommends seven to eight hours a night as the ideal amount of sleep, but also found that sleeping well gets harder as we get older. Our sleep patterns change, making us more vulnerable to waking up during the night and earlier in the morning. Having a poor night’s sleep can leave us feeling sluggish and generally under the weather – an experience common to many of us.

But longer term sleep deprivation – missing out on the right amount of good quality sleep over a protracted period ­– can be much more detrimental to our health. People who have chronic inadequate sleep are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, fall-related injuries and obesity, with all the health risks it brings.

James Goodwin, Chief Scientist at Age UK, explained: “Sleeping is something we all take for granted, but we really have to wise up to the fact that getting the right amount of good sleep is crucial as we age. It helps to protect us from all kinds of problems that can affect our brains as well as our bodies.”

Some disturbances in sleep in older age can be described as ‘environmental’, such as having a bedroom at the wrong temperature or curtains which let in too much light. Others are related to lifestyle factors, such as taking certain medications or eating late. Most people also need to visit the toilet more frequently in older age, but having to get up to go to the loo in the night shouldn’t necessarily stop you getting back off to sleep.

Some recognized sleep disorders are also more common in later life, such as sleep apnoea, but your GP should be able to help with this. It is also acknowledged that ‘[deep sleep’ decreases in adults aged 30 to 60.

The good news is that there is lots we can do ourselves to improve the amount and quality of sleep we get. Just like establishing a good sleep routine for infants, a lot of it connected to setting a regular pattern of behavior so that our bodies become accustomed to sleeping and waking at particular times. And a lot of how we sleep at night is determined by what we do in the daytime.

The new report from Age UK contains several tips for improving our quality of sleep, which are particularly useful from middle age onwards. They include:

  • Get up at the same time every day. A lie-in at the weekend might be tempting, but it could disrupt your regular sleep pattern.
  • If possible, expose yourself to some natural sunlight during the daytime.
  • Don’t drink alcohol to help you sleep.
  • Try to eat your last main meal of the day at least three hours before you go to bed.
  • Avoid drinking coffee (or anything else that’s high in caffeine) after lunchtime.
  • Wear socks to keep your feet warm in bed.
  • Don’t look at an electronic screen of any kind after you get into bed, such as a phone, laptop or tablet.
  • Don’t sleep with pets in the bedroom.
  • Avoid arguments with a spouse or partner before going to bed. As the old saying goes, “never let the sun set on an argument”.
  • Avoid using over-the-counter sleep preparations.
  • If you have a nap in the afternoon, limit it to half-an-hour or less.

If you struggle to sleep, give these tips a try, but don’t expect instant success. The key thing is to establish a routine and stick to it, so our bodies know what to expect. If you do all that and still can’t sleep, it could be a medical issue which would warrant a chat with your GP.

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