t’s a myth that you need less sleep as you get older, but you may need to make changes to ensure you’re getting enough writes Olive Keogh.
Dr. Els van der Helm founded the consultancy, shleepbetter.com after a decade of experience in sleep research. She coaches business leaders on how to improve performance and health through sleep management and she firmly believes we should all be getting around eight hours shut eye a night regardless of our age.
“There is no research to show that older people need less sleep but it can become more difficult to sleep deeply as we age,” she says. “The quality of our sleep can decline because our biological clocks are not as effective. We tend to become more ‘morning’ types. We wake up earlier, it becomes more difficult to sleep in and we find it hard to fall back asleep if we wake during the night. Factors affecting sleep as we age include illness, pain, medication and the fact that our bladders can’t hold as much liquid as when we were younger. Bascially, the best sleep happens in kids. It’s downhill for everyone after that!”
So that’s the bad news about the impact of ageing on our sleep. However, van der Helm says there are ways of dealing with it. “Stay healthy and your sleep won’t take a big hit,” she says. “By this I mean be active, don’t gain weight, make sure you get as much daylight as possible. Limit alcohol and caffeine as it takes much longer for the body to process these substances after the age of 30 and this has an impact on your sleep. Finally, practice good sleep hygiene.” van der Helm says that good sleep hygiene - which should be observed by everyone regardless of age – includes building habits that encourage rest such as maintaining a regular bedtime and not mixing coffee with adrenaline inducing video games or TV programmes right before bed. Checking emails/ text messages in bed is also discouraged as is watching TV and surfing the net because LCD screens emit a type of blue light that has a detrimental impact on the body’s natural rhythm. “It makes you feel less sleepy and pushes out your natural sleeping cycle,” van der Helm says.
Up to 2013, researchers thought sleep was important for reasons ranging from boosting the immune system to regulating the metabolism. Then it was discovered that the brain is effectively being ‘cleaned’ during sleep and offloading toxic byproducts such as the amyloid data implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
“People need to work out what their sleep number is – in terms of hours they need – and try and stick to that for 22 days out of 30 in the month,” says van der Helm. “You need to design your life around your individual sleep requirement, something that often causes friction within relationships because people need different amounts and compromise in the middle meaning neither of them are operating optimally. It’s better to get up and go to bed at different times. There is no such thing as having too much sleep. Your brain will wake you up when you’ve had enough.”
van der Helm also has little time for those who brag about functioning perfectly on four hours sleep. “It is rare to find people who need less than six. In fact only one per cent of the population have the genes that make it possible to survive on minimal sleep, she says”. Visit shleepbetter.com