Sleep and Healthy Aging | Des Moines University Clinic Family Medicine

Sleep quality and healthy aging

Sleep is just as important for your overall health as going to the gym, eating the right foods and taking care of your mental and emotional needs. In fact, your quality of sleep is a key factor in healthy aging. In this article, we dive into the science of sleep, changes as we age, the benefits of sleep for older individuals, risks associated with lack of sleep, the importance of sleep in fighting COVID-19 and tips on how to improve sleep quality.


let’s get into the Science behind Sleep

Let’s look at the science of sleep. There are two types of sleep: Non-REM and REM. In general, Non-REM has four phases that contribute to the recovery of our body as we sleep and building of our immune system. Regarding our memory, this type of sleep helps gather our memories in a less organized way. REM sleep is what fine tunes these memories and assists us in consolidating our memories. During REM sleep is when we dream and during this time our voluntary muscles that we actively use every day are paralyzed so we do not jump out of bed and act out our dreams. Knowing this, you can see why it is important to reach the proper amount of sleep each night. If we lose out on one type of sleep, this could have negative effects on the recovery of our body and our memory.

We also have a rhythm that our bodies operate by. The more normal this rhythm is, the better sleep we will achieve. When it becomes dark out, our brain begins to produce chemicals that start to initiate the process of becoming tired so we can fall asleep at our normal time. There are other chemicals inside our brain that begin to build up as we are awake that also make us more tired to assist in us falling asleep when our bodies need to recover.

As we age, our sleep needs constantly change. It is crucial to get the recommended amount of sleep to perform best, have a positive mood, and prevent future illness.


the importance of Sleep for healthy aging

We’ve talked about the basic science of sleep. Now let’s talk about how sleep needs change as we age. As we get older, we need less and less sleep. Newborns require 16-20 hours of sleep. By the time a person becomes a young adult, he or she generally needs 7-9 hours of sleep. Interestingly enough, seniors also usually need 7-9 hour of sleep. Unfortunately, there may be obstacles that prevent them from getting the sleep they need.

One obstacle is that seniors generally have shorter periods of “deep sleep,” also known as “slow wave” sleep. That means that they sleep more lightly and tend to wake up more easily. Another obstacle is the influence of various underlying conditions. These underlying conditions can have a negative effect on sleep quality. 7 out of 10 adults have problems that affect the quality of their sleep. If you suspect that you might not be getting the sleep you need, talk to your primary care provider about whether seeing a sleep specialist would be the right choice for you.


what are the Benefits of Sleep?

After seeing how our sleep can change as we age, it is important to emphasize that there are many benefits of getting a good night’s sleep as we age as well. One of the most crucial functions of sleep is to help consolidate our memory. Older adults who regularly get a good night’s sleep report improved cognitive function, improved memory, and better mental health. This is important for preventing age-related cognitive decline and dementia, as well as play a role in preventing depression, which is a common mental health disorder among older individuals.

There are also some benefits to our bodies as well as our minds. Older adults who report having good sleep at night tend to also be at lower risk for falls, which is a common cause of morbidity and mortality as we age. Additionally, good sleep has been shown to improve overall immune functioning and reduce risk of hospitalization in older adults. Fewer sick days and hospitalizations means more time doing the things you enjoy.

Risks of Poor Sleep

Chronic poor sleep can significantly affect our bodies and minds. Studies have shown that poor sleep habits can increase the risk of dementia by 33%. It can also increase risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and age our brain 3-5 years. Most importantly, it can decrease our immunity which makes it hard for our body to fight off infections. We also are three times more likely to catch a cold. So, let’s fix our sleep and keep our body healthy.


COVID-19 and sleep quality

The risks of poor sleep are now more relevant than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic in the US, there has been a spike in the number of sleep disorders. Some sleep neurologists have described this disturbing phenomenon as “COVID-somnia.

What’s causing this to happen? Based on our current understanding, the main culprits seem to be mental health-related: anxiety, depression, loneliness, and chronic stress. And a major challenge is that the problem seems to feed on itself. In other words, it’s a vicious cycle. As we become stressed, we lose sleep. As we lose sleep, our immune system gets weaker. As our immune system gets weaker, we become more likely to get sick. And when we’re more likely to get sick, we become more stressed.

What can we do to break this cycle and prevent the pandemic from ruining our sleep? We can start by avoiding things that stress us out, like distressing stories on the TV and on social media. We can practice relaxation exercises, try out meditation, and pursue enjoyable hobbies. Lastly, we can try to talk about our emotions and concerns with a mental health expert, who can offer guidance and support.


establishing good Sleep habits

The first beneficial thing you can do to get a good night sleep is to maintain a regular bedtime and wake up time. Keeping a regular cycle allows you to fall asleep more easily as well as wake up feeling refreshed. Next, try to keep your sleep environment as cool, dark, and quiet as possible. This will improve sleep quality and reduce any distractions that may prevent you from falling asleep or that might wake you up in the middle of the night. Dim and turn off any unnecessary lights two hours prior to bed. Also try to remove or turn off any lights from electronics or other devices that you may have in your room. Even the smallest amount of light prevents you from falling asleep or hinder staying asleep. Try to avoid any alcohol or caffeine before bed.  It’s recommended to not consume caffeine 8 hours prior to bed to avoid restlessness. These two things can prevent you from falling asleep as well as affect the mechanisms in your brain that promote a good night sleep and feeling refreshed in the morning.

The next recommendation for a better night sleep is to limit daytime naps to 10-20 minutes. While napping can increase your overall amount of rest, it can negatively impact sleep quality at night if overdone. Exercise or being active during the day promotes a healthier mental state and bodily function that ultimately will help you sleep better.

If you are still having trouble falling asleep or maintaining a regular sleep schedule, try taking one to two milligrams of melatonin approximately two hours prior to bed. This can trigger systems that tell your body that it is time for bed. It’s important to note that melatonin is not a medication put you to sleep but rather it promotes the state of tiredness prior to bed.


While it would be ambitious to implement all of these tips, even adding one or two of these could potentially help you get a better night sleep! If you need help creating better sleep habits, we can help. The exceptional providers at Des Moines University Clinic will work with you to create specialized treatments options and get you back to feeling your best. Call 515-271-1710 or visit the DMU Clinic website to schedule an appointment.


This article was written collectively by members of the Des Moines University Neurology Club: Rebecca Lair, Chance Johnson, Mathu Kularajan, Nick Pashina, Christian Bongiorno, Larry Gerchikov

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