3 Reasons Your Age May Be Hurting Your Sleep and What You Can Do About It

By on August 9, 2017

By Hilary Thompson–

Until recently, sleep has never been a problem for you. Sure, you resisted naps as a child, slept in during your teenage years, stayed up late studying in college, and worried through the night about your own teenagers, but when you had time to sleep, you could. If this has changed recently for you, you might be wondering why. The truth is, sleep gets harder as we age––for many reasons.  

1. Hormones

Have you recently become a “light sleeper”? It’s probably because your body produces lower levels of growth hormones as you age. This causes a decrease in slow wave sleep, which is the restorative component of the sleep cycle. Additionally, you’re also producing less melatonin––a hormone produced by the pineal gland that signals the body that it is time for sleep. Because of these hormone changes in your body, you may start waking frequently during the night. You may also find yourself wanting to go to sleep earlier and earlier––this is because your circadian rhythm has also been affected.

Researchers in Texas blame hormone changes in older people for the discrepancy in circadian rhythm that most experience. “Our results suggest that hormonal changes can alter cellular clocks, and these changes in turn might underlie the differences in circadian behavior caused by aging,” write researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

If you’re a woman experiencing sleep disturbances, menopause may be the culprit. At a time when the hormones of a woman are in extreme flux, circadian rhythms also become affected. Additionally, the symptoms of menopause (hot flashes, night sweats, general discomfort) could also negatively impact your sleep.

So what can you do about it? 

There are several things that may help. Taking a melatonin supplement at night may help replace what you are losing. If you’re going to bed earlier and earlier, try keeping yourself up an hour later each week until you’re back to an appropriate bedtime. Make sure you get enough exercise every day to reduce the symptoms of insomnia and their effects on your circadian rhythm. If night sweats or hot flashes keep you awake, try installing a fan in your ceiling or using a portable one. There are cooling gel pillows on the market that wick away sweat and keep your head cool while you sleep. Temperature-regulating sheets (yes, they exist!) will do the same. Frequently staring at a screen before bed may also negatively affect your circadian rhythm. Try shutting off any screens a couple of hours before bedtime to prevent them from keeping you awake at night. If you have tried all these solutions and sleep still eludes you, it may be time to consult an endocrinologist about the possible need for hormone replacements.

2. Discomfort

You might feel like you’re still in high school, but your body didn’t get the memo. Even as young as 40, you may start feeling the effects of aging: a sore back, restless legs, an injured knee, a stiff neck. Luckily most of these complaints are transitory when you’re 40, but at 50 they may start to linger. It is crucial, then, that the surface on which you spend a third of your life—your mattress—be appropriate for your needs. 

Many seniors find themselves sleeping on the same mattress they had in their 30s. As your body changes, so do your mattress needs. Doctors used to recommend the hardest surface imaginable for back pain (your grandfather may have slept on a board), but now they recommend a more supportive mattress. Most experts also recommend replacing your mattress every eight years, but if you’re on a limited budget, this may not be possible. Consider adding a memory foam mattress topper to extend the life of your mattress.

3. Oxygen

As you’re well aware by now, your body changes as you age. What you might not consider is that it changes internally as well. As your skeleton weakens, your ribs change shape and your lungs may become compressed. This can compromise lung capacity and the overall efficiency of your body’s oxygenation process. Lying prone while you sleep probably isn’t helping the matter.

Lack of oxygen can lead to dizziness and falls, so if you truly suspect that you’re not getting the oxygen you need, try purchasing a pulse-ox monitor for your finger. If your oxygen saturation is below 90 while awake, it’s time to see the doctor. It may not be time for the oxygen tank yet, though. There are plenty of things you can do to make every breath count.

If you want to increase the oxygen you get while you sleep, you might want to visit a garden center! Placing a plant that emits a lot of oxygen in your room might be just the thing to boost your oxygen supply. Plants like the peace lily, spider plant, and snake plant will purify the air in your room, removing harmful, volatile organic compounds from the air. They also filter out the carbon dioxide you’ve been exhaling and replace it with more of the clean oxygen that you need while you sleep. Some who report chest discomfort or low oxygen levels also utilize a bedside filter that goes through the same process even more efficiently and can help with allergies as well.

While some of these factors may not apply to you, it’s likely that if you’re not sleeping well after you’ve reached your 50s, trying some of these simple solutions may just help you sleep a little better. If sleep continues to elude you though, or you suspect that you have a genuine sleep disorder, it is advisable to consult with your physician. Aim for 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep every night to function at your best.

You’ve led a full life and earned a good night’s rest. Pleasant dreams!

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3 Reasons Your Age May Be Hurting Your Sleep and What You Can Do About It