Sleep is an important piece of the health puzzle that eludes many Americans. One in three adults don’t get the sleep they need, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And catching the necessary shut-eye does not get any easier as you age.
Throughout your lifetime, your sleep is constantly changing. One study, in fact, found that the bulk of changes in adult sleep patterns occur between the ages of 19 and 60. These changes include decreased deep and REM sleep, increased waking after going to sleep, and being easily aroused from sleep.
As you transition into older adulthood, your circadian rhythm may shift forward so that you’re not only falling asleep earlier but also getting up earlier. It’s not that your need for sleep declines, but rather, the ability to get sleep can prove challenging. “Particularly after retirement, there’s less structure in life and greater opportunity to nap during the day,” says Terry Cralle, M.S., R.N., certified clinical sleep educator in Washington, D.C., and co-author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top. You may be getting a similar amount of sleep as when you were younger, but your sleep is simply more fragmented.
No matter where you are in life, though, it’s essential to get the recommended amount of sleep for your age. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults ages 18 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep a night while those 65 and older are advised to log seven to eight hours. And for people who claim they can live on six hours or less a night, studies bear otherwise, showing that this amount of sleep can set you up for health issues like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, as well as decreased cognitive function.
So how do you move toward better sleep? Make a few simple tweaks to your routine:
- Prioritize exercise.
Sleep is crucial for everybody, but it’s especially helpful in aiding sleep. “Exercise seems to improve deep sleep,” Cralle says. Exercise any time of day is good, but some people are more sensitive to exercising closer to bedtime than others. Government guidelines recommend logging at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity every week.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine.
Both caffeine and alcohol can wreak havoc on sleep. Cralle recommends avoiding caffeine, including caffeine-rich foods like chocolate, at least four to six hours before bed if you’re sensitive to it. Avoid alcohol at least three to four hours before bed.
- Try to be consistent.
Whether you have a habit of using weekends to catch up on sleep or just don’t have a set sleep and wake time, a constantly changing sleep schedule weakens your circadian rhythms, leading to a more disrupted sleep cycle in the long run. The more consistent your sleep schedule is, the more likely you are to get sufficient sleep on a daily basis. There can be some variability in your schedule but keep it in moderation. For example, try not to deviate from your bed and wake times by more than two hours on the weekends.
- Power down at night.
TVs, laptops, tablets, and cell phones emit blue light, which signals your brain to shut down production of melatonin, a hormone that controls your sleep and wake cycles, making you less sleepy, Cralle says. At least an hour before you intend to go to sleep, turn off these devices.
- Get out of bed.
What if you wake up in the middle of the night? Don’t toss and turn in bed. Instead, get up, go to a different room, and do something relaxing, like reading. Once you feel yourself getting sleepy, head back to bed. The one caveat? If this happens frequently, see a sleep specialist to determine whether you have insomnia or an underlying sleep issue, like sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, both of which are more common as people age.