Sleep in later life – a restorative nighttime rest to boost health

Sleep patterns change throughout a person’s lifetime. For example, older people often sleep for shorter periods than younger people. In addition, sleep disturbances and disorders that can affect a person’s health are more common among older people. There are lots of things that people can do to help themselves get a restorative, healthy sleep and rest at night.

At a glance

  • A restorative sleep is important for health – including in later life.
  • Older people have fewer deep-sleep phases. They often sleep less peacefully and for less time than younger people.
  • Certain habits, illnesses or medications can also have a negative effect on quality of sleep.
  • A regular day/night (sleep/wake) cycle, getting enough fresh air and exercise and following certain rituals can help promote sound, healthy sleep.
  • Someone who listens to their body and its needs can find their own personal sleep rhythm.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Healthy sleeping in later life: older man lying on his side in bed sleeping. He has his arm bent, clutching his pillow between his head and his arm.

How does sleep change in later life?

Almost everyone has had the experience of not being able to fall asleep or of waking up and feeling that they haven’t slept well. Sleep disorders and disturbances can develop at any age, may last for varying periods of time and have a wide range of possible causes. In Germany, around one third of people experience difficulties falling asleep or sleeping through the night, with this figure rising to an estimated 50% among those aged over 60.

Around one third of all adults in Germany suffer from sleep problems, rising to an estimated 50% among those aged over 60.

In older people, the light-sleep phases per night increase, while deep-sleep phases become shorter than in younger years. The result may be that we wake up more often during the night and, in general, sleep less well and for less time. Following certain routines and rituals and having as regular a sleep/wake cycle as possible can help to improve sleep.

Important: Everyone is different, and sleep requirements vary too. For example, some people need 8 hours of sleep every night, while others find that just 6 hours leaves them feeling rested and restored.

Why do older people often have difficulties with sleep?

“When I was younger, I was able to sleep much better and much longer.” This is something that many older people find themselves saying. And there are several reasons why people sleep less peacefully and wake up earlier as they age.

The older we get, the less time we spend in deep-sleep stages, which in turn lengthens light-sleep phases and increases waking frequency. Older people then often become aware that they are awake, and have a problem in getting back to sleep. Their overall sleeping time also reduces somewhat – they wake earlier in the morning and don’t always feel well-rested.

Important: In a healthy adult, sleep comprises a number of stages of about 90 minutes. Most people don’t even realize that they, like everyone else, wake up briefly around 20 times every night.

Another factor is changes in lifestyle habits – older people tend to go to sleep earlier and so they wake up earlier too, they are less active during the day and their eating habits differ from when they were younger. Illnesses and ailments can also trigger sleep problems – for example, chronic pain, frequent nighttime urinary urgency, muscle twitches, stomach ailments, a diabetic illness or Alzheimer’s disease (dementia). Sleep can also be affected by sleep-related breathing disorders (sleep apnea). This condition occurs in around 25% of people aged over 60. There are various types of sleep apnea, including obstructive sleep apnea, which is usually indicated by loud snoring.

What is obstructive sleep apnea?

The video below explains more about the symptoms, risk factors and treatment options for obstructive sleep apnea.

This and other videos can also be found on YouTube

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How does lifestyle affect sleep in later life?

How you live your life during the day affects how you sleep at night. A person who structures their day well, enjoys pleasant experiences, and is active both physically and mentally is more balanced and content. This also affects nighttime rest. Anything that is good for the health, such as lots of activity and fresh air, also helps with sleep. Natural daylight in the open air helps to stabilize a person’s sleep-wake cycle. It is also advisable to minimize alcohol consumption, avoid nicotine and eat a healthy, balanced diet.

What you eat in the evening in particular is important for your sleep – heavy, high-fat foods or very protein-rich meals may make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Light meals such as steamed vegetables and rice are a better choice. While drinking plenty of fluids is generally healthy, it isn’t such a good idea before bedtime as it may mean more trips to the bathroom at night. In particular, those with bladder weakness (urinary incontinence) should drink slightly less in the evening and drink more in the hours before midday.

Important: Caffeinated drinks, such as coffee, black tea or coke, can interfere with sleep. Limiting consumption of these to the hours before noon may help people to fall asleep more easily at night.

How can older people improve their sleep?

To some extent, changes to sleep in later life are quite natural. However, this doesn’t mean that people should simply accept sleeping badly for a long time. When we sleep badly, the physical and mental regeneration that nighttime rest is meant to bring us is reduced. In people of any age, this can cause their stamina to suffer so that they feel constantly tired and may ultimately become ill.

Use sleeping pills and sedatives with caution

Sleeping tablets and sedatives should only be used temporarily for short periods of time. They often have unwanted side-effects, which are sometimes more severe in older people. These include unsteadiness, an increased risk of falling and incontinence. In the long term, these drugs can also lead to dependency. Some people find herbal remedies based on substances like valerian, lemon balm and hops to be beneficial. It’s best to consult your doctor in relation to what remedies would be suitable for you.

Helpful alternatives to sleeping pills and sedatives

As an alternative to taking a sleeping pill, you can try out the following recommendations for improving sleep and finding your own rhythm.

  • Identify your own cycles: at what times of the day are you more wakeful and more efficient, and when do you often experience a drop-off? Adapt your activities accordingly to these cycles to establish your own rhythm.
  • If possible, avoid sleeping during the day. The exception to this rule is a short midday nap of no more than 30 minutes, which can be refreshing – but don’t sleep for too long or this could make it difficult for you to fall asleep at night.
  • Be active during the day: getting exercise in the fresh air is healthy and helps tire you out for your nighttime sleep. Even on cloudy days, natural light helps to develop a good day-night rhythm.
  • Establish rituals and routines: try going to bed and getting up at the same time each day and maintain good habits, such as an evening walk, a warm bath or a hot cup of tea before bedtime.
  • Create a healthy sleep environment: a dark, quiet bedroom with no distractions that is well ventilated and a temperature between 16 and 18 degrees, as well as a mattress that suits your needs and breathable bed linen to prevent night sweats.
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself: having high expectations of falling asleep and sleeping well is a sure way to create stress. Improving sleep is a process, and all your goals won’t be achieved straight away.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: methods such as lying-down meditation and progressive muscle relaxation may help if you wake up at night or are unable to fall asleep.
  • Only go to bed when you’re actually feeling sleepy. If you’re still lying awake after 15 minutes, get up and go into another room until you feel tired.
  • Avoid looking at your watch and alarm clock during the night.
People can improve their sleeping by identifying the sleeping pattern that’s right for them, being active throughout the day, having a short midday nap, creating the right sleeping environment, establishing rituals and relaxation techniques.

If poor-quality sleep is having a serious impact on your life, you can consult your family doctor. Take note if you sleep much less than 7 hours a night, lie awake for more than 2 hours at a time or feel very tired in the morning, and if this lasts for more than 4 weeks. You should also take action if you snore loudly and if a lack of sleep over an extended period affects you negatively during the day. After all, sleep disorders and disturbances can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases or mental illnesses such as depression.

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