Advice on how to sleep more healthily as you get older

Sleep becomes harder as we get older, with research showing that we are more likely to wake up during the night and earlier in the morning. A report by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) says the over-50s should be aiming for 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night to stay mentally sharp in later life.

Senior man sleeping on sofa

The report, ‘The Brain–Sleep Connection’, was drawn up by council members who met to review the latest scientific evidence on sleep and issue practical tips to help older people get to sleep faster and stay asleep longer.

James Goodwin, chief scientist at Age UK, which jointly founded the council, says in a statement: “Sleeping is something we all tend to take for granted, but we really have to wise up to the fact that getting the right amount of good sleep is crucial as we age, helping to protect us from all kinds of problems that can affect our brains as well as our bodies.

As we age, our cognitive functioning declines; we might have problems remembering names, forget where we left our keys, or have trouble learning new information. For some older individuals, the decline in cognitive functioning can be more severe, potentially leading to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

According to James Goodwin: “The message is that in order to stay mentally sharp in later life – something we all care passionately about – you have to take care of your sleep.”

A number of things are listed but among the most important are to avoid looking at an electronic screen of any kind after you get into bed, including tablets, phones and laptops.

They advise cutting out alcohol in the last couple of hours of the day, losing some weight if necessary, and keeping your feet as warm when in bed.

One huge problem as we age of course is snoring, but nowadays it can be prevented by the use of a simple stop snoring mouthpiece, or a chin support strap. These don’t need a prescription, are inexpensive, and highly efficient. Those from companies such as SleepPro are medically approved by the NHS and are easily available online. They are even approved for the prevention of mild to moderate sleep apnoea.

After the council was set up in 2015, one of its founding partners, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), carried out a survey which discovered that sleep was the number one topic of interest for the over-50s and that 84% of them wanted to know more about sleep and brain health.

Sarah Lock, AARP’s senior vice president for policy, says in a statement: “It’s normal for sleep to change as we age, but poor quality sleep is not normal.”

A further new study by John Hopkins University in Baltimore brings some good news for older adults who enjoy an afternoon nap, after finding that a 1-hour siesta may improve memory and thinking skills.

Previous research has suggested that napping can improve cognitive performance for older adults, while other research has indicated that daytime napping can improve memory by fivefold.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, an afternoon nap of around 20-30 minutes is best for boosting alertness and mental performance, without interfering with your night-time’s sleep.  The new study, however, suggests that an afternoon nap of around 1 hour is ideal for improving cognitive functioning among older adults.

The study reports that nearly 60% of participants reported engaging in post-lunch napping, with the average nap lasting for around 1 hour. When compared with those who had no nap, the researchers found that participants who had a moderate afternoon nap performed far better in a wide range of cognitive tests.

The answer is to relax, have a suitable nap in the afternoon, and get a good night’s sleep by cutting out alcohol, late nights viewing tablets, phones and computers, and snoring.

John Redfern.