The idea that “older people do not need much sleep” has been shown to be a myth. Many of us have experienced how not getting enough sleep leaves us – grouchy, not as quick-on-the-draw mentally, tired or perhaps feeling low or anxious, and without much motivation.
Most of the issues relating to inadequate sleep tends to go away with some catch-up sleep or perhaps some naps. But not getting enough sleep, even when we are in our 50s and 60s, has also been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline as well as developing dementia as we get older.
Knowing these reasons to get enough sleep, we may have focused on getting the holy grail of seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Some of us, assuming that more of a good thing is even better, may have set our alarms to give us an extra hour or two of sleep – especially on the weekends!
Recent research, however, suggests that it may not be the quantity of sleep but rather the quality of sleep that matters when it comes to reducing our risk for cognitive decline as we get older. And getting too much sleep may be just as bad for our cognitive abilities as not getting enough of it. Let’s look at each and how we can be proactive to improve our sleep quality.
Quality vs Quantity
Just because we may spend seven hours in bed every night does not mean we are getting good quality sleep. There is credible evidence that as much as 15 percent of Alzheimer’s disease dementia may be due to poor sleep quality (versus hours of sleep).
Poor sleep increases the risk for cognitive impairment. The performance on cognitive tests of older adults who reported sleeping well and those reporting that they did not further illustrate this issue. There is an association between sleep quality and cognitive performance.
Some of our decreased sleep quality can be attributed to getting older. As we age, we often find it more difficult to fall asleep and we often wake up more during the night. Because of this, while we may get the same number of hours of sleep as we did when we were younger, these interruptions affect how well we are sleeping.
This explains why we often feel like we didn’t get a good night’s sleep even though we technically are sleeping the same number of hours.
Not Too Little, Not Too Much
As with most things that are good for our health, we neither want too little nor too much sleep since neither extreme is good for our cognitive health.
In a recent study by the prestigious Washington University School of Medicine, researchers found that boomers who get too little or too much sleep suffered a greater decline in cognitive performance than those who report sleeping between 5.5 and 7.5 hours a night.
In another study, a group of women in a community-dwelling living situation were followed for an average of seven years to see how their sleep patterns affected their cognitive skills. In this case, researchers found that those women sleeping less than six hours a night or more than eight hours had greater cognitive decline and a greater risk for dementia than those who reported sleeping seven hours.
This does not necessarily mean that you should force yourself to sleep seven hours but rather to think about the quality of the sleep you are getting. To that end, one researcher said that if you wake up feeling rested after sleeping fewer or more than seven hours, then that is most likely fine.
How to Improve Sleep Quality
The first thing to keep in mind is that many conditions that may impact the quality of your sleep can be treated, so make sure to talk with a competent healthcare practitioner if you are not sleeping well. Be sure to also let them know about medications (both prescription and over the counter) you are taking. The good news is that improving your sleep quality may also improve your cognitive performance.
In addition to talking with your doctor, there are various things you can do to help improve your sleep. These include making both lifestyle and dietary changes that promote healthier, higher quality sleep, such as:
Establish a Regular Bedtime Routine
Consistently getting to bed and waking up at the same times is important to better sleep.
Ensure Your Room Is Cool and Well Ventilated
Leaving a bedroom door or window open may help you sleep better since this can reduce carbon dioxide levels and improve ventilation and air flow.
Incorporate a Period of Exercise into Each Day
Multiple studies have shown that as little as 10 minutes of exercise daily could greatly help with regulating sleep patterns and help you get a more restful night’s sleep.
Utilize Houseplants Which Contribute to a More Oxygen-Rich Environment
Common houseplants are known to naturally rid the air of odors, molds and improve poor air quality, and the better the air quality, the better your sleep.
Minimize Use of Electronics
In addition to keeping your mind active, the light from your phone or electronic notebook can make it harder to fall asleep.
There are also some nutrient-rich foods as we as important vitamins and minerals that can help you sleep better, including:
According to various studies, kiwis may be one of the best foods to eat before bed since they have been shown to help people fall asleep more quickly.
Cherries are a natural source of melatonin, considered the “sleep hormone.” They may help with sleep disorders and insomnia.
A banana in the evening can supply a healthy dose of magnesium along with tryptophan and melatonin, all of which can promote better sleep.
I also recommend getting a nutrition test to make sure you are getting enough iron, vitamin D, magnesium, and calcium in your diet. These have been shown to support healthy sleep.
Have you noticed any changes in your sleep patterns or quality compared to when you were younger? What are they? How have they affected your cognitive abilities or quality of life? Have you spoken to a doctor or another competent healthcare provider about them? Have you made any lifestyle or dietary changed to try and get a better night’s sleep? Have they worked for you? Please join the conversation.