Sleep your way to better health as you age

Sleep your way to better health as you age

By Monika Downey, PhD, MSCP

When it comes to brain health and strengthening memories, a good night’s rest is essential

How many hours of sleep does a person actually need at night? While we don’t need as much sleep as we once did as children or teenagers, the perfect amount is whatever is needed to feel rested in the morning. It can vary from person to person, but is typically between 7-9 hours. The number is not as important as the overall quality of sleep. 

As we age, sleep patterns can sometimes change. Some older adults might experience changes in their circadian rhythms, leading to earlier bedtimes and wake-up times. Or, they might see a decrease in the overall duration and quality of sleep, leading to sleep that feels fragmented with more frequent awakenings during the night. Sleep issues can also be a common sign of anxiety and depression.

Adults age 65 and older have unique needs, which makes it especially important to understand the effects of aging on sleep and overall health. Let’s take a look at the critical connection between aging and sleep, common sleep issues, and sleep tips for older adults.

Benefits of good sleep 

Sleep plays a crucial role in overall well-being, especially when it comes to maintaining cognitive function and brain health as we age. Your brain needs sleep to regulate your body, restore energy, and repair damage. Lack of adequate sleep can leave older adults vulnerable to health conditions that accelerate aging and make it difficult to safely age in place. A good night’s sleep can help to:

  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Lower inflammation, which may reduce cancer risk, protect you from dementia, protect against heart disease, reduce pain, and help you maintain or lose weight
  • Increase immune function
  • Boost energy levels
  • Provide more motivation 
  • Improve concentration and memory
  • Enhance current relationships with family, friends and co-workers

Struggling to fall asleep at night?

Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders in older adults. Nearly 48 percent of older adults experience insomnia symptoms. We all experience an occasional restless night, but having trouble falling or staying asleep on a regular basis can severely affect your health and well-being. As we age, this can become a greater problem, leading to early onset of chronic conditions, including dementia, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes. 

While many people believe that poor sleep is inevitable as we get older, there are things you can do to guarantee better sleep at night, such as:

  • Limiting alcohol in the evenings
  • Cutting back on caffeine after 9 am 
  • Having a set bedtime and wake-up time 
  • Avoiding falling asleep in your chair or in front of the TV
  • Eliminating screen time on your phone or computer one hour before bed
  • Limiting daytime napping

Sleeping pills may seem like a logical answer to insomnia, but the truth is that many sleep medications are not recommended for older adults. Sleeping pills can make you feel groggy in the morning, increasing your chance of falling or having an accident. Some sleeping pills can cause memory loss in older adults, and can have other unintended side effects such as dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, and kidney function issues. 

Don’t count sheep! Consider these practical tips

What if you’ve tried all of these tactics and you STILL can’t fall asleep at night? Here are some ideas to help ease you to sleep:

  • Don’t force things 
  • Avoid counting sheep – it doesn’t work!
  • If after 30 minutes, you can’t sleep, get up and do something quiet
  • Take a hot shower or bath
  • Eat protein an hour before going to bed
  • Listen (don’t watch on a screen) to a guided meditation on YouTube or a sleep app such as Insomnia Coach, available for free via the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Try 4-7-8 breathing exercises – a breath regulation practice to try while sitting down, where you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds 
  • Use white noise such as a fan, on a machine, or even on your phone

Maybe falling asleep isn’t what plagues you – it’s the waking up in the morning that’s difficult. Consider these strategies:

  • The night before, visualize yourself waking up easily in the morning
  • As soon as you wake up, open the blinds or sit in the light for a few minutes
  • Practice the five second rule, giving yourself five seconds to get out of bed before your mind convinces yourself to do otherwise
  • Schedule appointments early in the day to give you an incentive to rise
  • Try a light therapy box to simulate dawn / sunrise

Better sleep equals better health. Adopting healthy sleep habits can go a long way in helping older adults with their overall well-being and reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline. A good night's sleep is not just a luxury; it's a fundamental pillar for a healthy and vibrant life, especially in our later years. 


Monika Downey, PhD, MSCP, is the Senior Director of Behavioral Health at Patina. Dr. Downey earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Palo Alto University and also holds a master’s degree in psychopharmacology from Alliant University.