Dreaming of a good night’s rest

Sleep trouble? These strategies keep your sleep cycle on track.

Published: December, 2020

Sleep problems are an all-too-common reality for most older men. Maybe they have trouble falling asleep, or wake up several times during the night, or have to take naps during the day to fight fatigue.

Some of these sleep issues are age-related. For example, older adults often sleep less deeply than younger people and are more easily awakened. They also may take specific medication that have sleep-disrupting side effects.

Older adults also are more likely to suffer from conditions that affect sleep, like sleep apnea (where you experience short pauses in your breathing many times during the night) and restless legs syndrome (an uncontrollable urge to move the legs).

Rest and renew

Proper sleep is as important as diet and exercise for optimal health. When you sleep, your body's cells repair and recharge themselves, so you feel energized the next day. Sleep also clears toxins from the brain, which keeps your brain sharp.

The amount of sleep people need does not change as they age, according to Dr. Salma Batool-Anwar, who specializes in sleep disorders at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Older adults still require seven to nine hours of sleep per night, just like when they were younger," he says.

Healthy sleep also means uninterrupted sleep. A good night's rest consists of completing four to five continuous sleep cycles. Each cycle includes periods of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when you dream, and non-REM sleep, when you have deep, dreamless slumber.

"If your sleep gets disrupted or becomes fragmented, you could lose a chunk of either non-REM or REM sleep," says Dr. Batool-Anwar.

Healthy sleep leads to a healthier brain

Fragmented sleep can lead to a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease. A study published online Sept. 3, 2020, by Current Biology measured sleep quality of adults in their 60s and 70s in a lab over an eight-hour night of sleep and periodically measured beta-amyloid protein in their brains with a PET scan over several years. (Beta-amyloid buildup is linked with Alzheimer's disease.) People with poor sleep quality also had higher amounts of beta-amyloid. Those with more restorative sleep had lower levels.

Pillow talk

See your doctor if you feel you suffer from a sleep-related disorder. Otherwise, the following strategies can help keep your sleep cycle running smoothly.

Review your medications. Diuretics (water pills) used to control blood pressure can make you wake up to use the bathroom. Some antidepressants cause daytime drowsiness and make it hard to fall asleep at night. "Consult your doctor about possibly changing medication, lowering the dose, or taking it at different times, like at night rather than in the morning," says Dr. Batool-Anwar.

Watch your naps. Regular naps reduce fatigue and increase alertness and mood. But they also can interfere with your sleep cycle if you take them later in the day. "Schedule them during a specific time of day, like in the early to late afternoon," says Dr. Batool-Anwar. Keep naps to 15 to 20 minutes (set a timer to make sure you don't oversleep). Sleeping longer can make you feel groggy.

Set stimuli cutoffs. For example, don't watch TV or use a computer at least an hour before bedtime. If your bladder often wakes you up, don't drink any liquids at least two hours beforehand. Also, avoid caffeine at least three hours before bedtime; caffeine reaches a peak level in your body within an hour after consumption, but it takes three to five hours for half of it to be eliminated. While regular exercise can help with sleep quality, working out within three hours of bedtime may lead to fragmented sleep.

Create a sleep routine. Go to bed around the same time, and give yourself about an hour beforehand for bedtime rituals like bathing, brushing your teeth, and putting on comfortable pajamas. "The structure teaches your body and mind how to properly wind down, which makes falling and staying asleep easier," says Dr. Batool-Anwar.

Prepare a soothing sleep setting. Make sure the bedroom is dark and cool. Listen to a relaxing sound machine. Or wear eyeshades or earplugs if you are sensitive to light or noise. Buy new sheets and pillows. Also, don't keep any stimulating electronics in the bedroom like a TV, computer, or phone.

Establish a time limit. If you don't fall asleep within about 20 minutes, don't lie in bed awake. "This can make insomnia even worse," says Dr. Batool-Anwar. Go to another room and read or listen to soothing music. "But don't watch TV or a computer or anything stimulating," says Dr. Batool-Anwar. When you feel relaxed, try to sleep again.

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