5 Scientifically-Backed Sleep Truths for the Over 50s

By Helen

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Photo credit MARCZERO1980

You might be tempted to assume that poor sleep is a reality of reaching old age. However, most up-to-date sleep research indicates the elderly might not be sleeping so bad after all.

Encouraged by these findings we set out to find more positives about sleep after 50. Here’s what we found out:

1. Exercise may help the elderly sleep better.

Research shows that regular exercise may contribute to sleep improvement when we’re older. Moderate-intensity exercise has been found to lead to significant improvements in sleep quality in a group of over-50s after just a few months.[1] Another study analysed the effects of physical exercise, including brisk walking and moderate resistance training, in adults aged 60 and over. These adults saw improvements in that it took them less time to fall asleep and they slept for longer.[2]

This year’s poll by National Sleep Foundation in the US identified a link between exercise and better sleep[3] across all ages. Even just adding a 10 minute walk is supposed to help[3], and it’s all the better if it’s done in the morning sunshine to promote wakefulness and help regulate the circadian rhythm for better quality sleep during the night.

In elderly with dementia, it was revealed that exposure to sunlight in the morning improves sleep and increases total time spent asleep.[4] Similar improvements have been found in treating the institutionalised elderly with bright light therapy in the morning hours between 8 and 11am.[5]

It is suggested that any aerobic exercise, like walking, cycling or swimming, might do - elderly adults with insomnia found this type of exercise especially helpful in improving their sleep and, subsequently, quality of life.[6]

2. Sleep problems don’t necessarily increase with age.

A hot-of-the-press, study[7] proved us wrong in thinking that aging inevitably brings sleep problems. No link was found between increasing age and complaints about either poor sleep or tiredness and a lack of energy during the day.

In fact, in the study, it was the younger adults who reported more sleep disturbance than those in their 80s. Another upside is that even though sleep does tend to be more fragmented in the elderly[8], they make up for this lack of sleep with naps in the daytime. Additionally, the time to fall asleep was shown to shorten with age[9].

3. Those over 60 lose less sleep over worry.

It’s true! Analysis of sleep patterns of more than 16,000 adults over 25 years[10] revealed a sharp decline in sleep lost over worry at age 60. Sleep disturbance due to worry continues to decline after 60, hitting its lowest points between ages 71 and 79.

Worry-related sleep loss was previously linked to increased risk of death and cardiovascular diseases[11], so it should be a relief to find out that it decreases with age.

4. Early to bed and early to rise...

Older people are more likely to fall into the category of ‘morning larks’[12]. This is due to the phase of their circadian rhythm coming on earlier, which leads to them going to bed earlier and subsequently, also waking up earlier. However, this pattern of getting up early evens out as the elderly also retire to bed earlier.

One thing to remember, though, is that

5. People over 50 may take longer to digest caffeine.

Avoiding caffeine is usually one of the first recommendations a person with sleep problems is given, however it might carry even more weight for the over 50s. They can take longer to metabolise caffeine[13] unlike young children for whom it can take only a few hours.[12] A longer digestion time delays feeling the effects of caffeine which can lead to sleep disturbance.

Caffeine has been shown to disrupt sleep in the elderly - in one study[15], participants not only took longer to fall asleep (over an hour in total!), but also woke up more times throughout the night and slept for 2 hours less than if they’d had a decaffeinated or no drink at all.

The good news is that older people may not even need it - another study[14] showed that while older people do feel objective effects of caffeine (like increased heart rate), they tend not to feel more alert or steady. Thus, without getting any of the benefits of hot java, there seems to be little point to drinking it at all. There are likely to be healthier hot drinks for the over-50s.

It is important to think positively about sleep - a good night’s sleep is not out of reach at any age. Sometimes, simple changes in attitude and lifestyle are all it takes to be a better sleeper. Armed with these five facts, I hope you will be able to do so.



[1]King, A.C., Oman, R.F., Brassington, G.S., Bliwise, D.L., Haskell, W.L. (1997). Moderate-intensity exercise and self-rated quality of sleep in older adults. Journal of American Medical Association, 277(1), 32-37. [2]Montgomery, P., Dennis, J.A. (2002). Physical exercise for sleep problems in adults aged 60+. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 4(CD003404). [3]http://www.sleepfoundation.org/alert/national-sleep-foundation-poll-finds-exercise-key-good-sleep [4]Mishima, K., Okawa, M., Hishikawa, Y., Hozumi, S., Hori, H., Takahashi, K. (1994). Morning bright light therapy for sleep and behavior disorders in elderly patients with dementia. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 89(1), 1-7. [5]Fetveit, A., Skjerve, A., Bjorvatn, B. (2003). Bright light treatment improves sleep in institutionalised elderly: an open trial. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 18(6), 520-526. [6]Reid, K.J., Baron, K.G., Lu, B., Naylor, E., Wolfe, L., Zee, P.C. (2010). Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Sleep Medicine, 11(9), 934-940. [7]Grandner, M.A. et al. (2012). Age and sleep disturbances among American men and women: data from the U.S. behvaioral risk factor surveillance system. Sleep, 35(3), 395-406. [8]Brown, S.A., Schmitt, K., Eckeert, A. (2011). Aging and circadian disruption: causes and effects. Aging, 3(8), 813-817.[9]Ohayon, M.M., Carskadon, M.A., Guilleminault, C., Vitiello, M.V. (2004). Meta-analysis of quantitative sleep parameters from childhood to old age in healthy individuals: developing normative sleep values across the human lifespan. Sleep, 27(7), 1255-1273. [10]Salo, P. et al. (2012). Trajectories of sleep complaints from early midlife to old age: longitudinal modeling study. Sleep, 35(11), 1559-1568. [11]Hamer, M., Batty, G.D., Kivimaki, M. (2011). Sleep loss due to worry and future risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: the Scottish Health Survey. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, doi:10.1177/1741826711426092 [12]Monk, T.H., Buysse, D.J., Potts, J.M., Degrazia, J.M., Kupfer, D.J. (2004). Morningness-eveningness and lifestyle regularity. Chronobiology International, 21(3), 435-443. [13]Ellis,J., Hampson, S.E., Cropley, M. (2002). Sleep hygiene or compensatory sleep practices: an examination of behaviours affecting sleep in older adults. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 7(2), 156-161. [14]Swift, C.G., Tiplady, B. (1974). The effects of age on the response to caffeine. Psychopharmacology, 94, 29-31. [15]Brezinova, V. (2012). Effect of caffeine on sleep: EEG study in late middle age people. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 1(3), 203-208.

Helena writes for Sleepio, an online sleep improvement programme based on CBT for insomnia. Visit Sleepio to speak to a sleep expert.

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