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Counting Sheep...How Sleep Changes As We Age

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

HEALTH QUIZ: What #1 change can you make today to have the biggest impact on your health over the next 30 years?

Exercise? Nutrition? Nope! How about improving your sleep! New studies are recognizing the powerful impact that a good night's sleep can have not only on our energy and mood, but also on reducing the risk of targeted health issues such as Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, cancer and obesity. Below are some fun facts about sleep, tips to help you improve your sleep right away, and a list of resources if you want to learn more.


  • You are not alone. Studies have shown that 50% of us are sleep deprived and/or will have trouble getting to sleep tonight.

  • Brain detoxes (while we sleep). The "glymphatic system" cleans toxins out of the brain - and it only works while we sleep. This is one reason that sleep is believed to help stave off Alzheimer's and other neurological disorders!

  • Why do we sleep all at once? Unlike humans, ALL other animals on the planet are "multi-phasic" (they sleep multiple times per day). Humans only became "8 hour sleepers" after the industrial revolution. Taking a mid-day nap has been shown to improve memory more effectively than 2 shots of espresso!

  • Need for sleep decreases with age? Studies indicate that the need for sleep may decrease 30 minutes per decade, so that those over 70 can feel well on 7.5 hours per night. I am curious to find more research on this...(please send me info if you have it!) See more about Sleep As We Age below.


There are many great ways to start improving your sleep. Here are some of my favorites!

Create a Sleep Sanctuary (upscale your environment)

Imagine a cocoon of light, no sound, perfect temperature...your own sensory deprivation chamber. How do you feel? Review the list below and consider any changes that would help you feel more safe, still, and disconnected.

  • Remove all screens (no tv, computer, phone)

  • Keep it cool (60-67 degrees)

  • Keep it dark

  • Keep it mellow

Create a Ritual

This might sound crazy...but I try not to eat after 8pm, and am (often!) in bed by 9:30pm. What works for you? Do you like to turn off your computer after dinner? Light a candle? Take a walk? The key is to choose something simple that you can do consistently. Try something new for one week and let me know how you feel!

  • Set a curfew (to stop caffeine, alcohol, food, exercise, or work)

  • Design a nighttime ritual - to slow down and be consistent

  • Use a trigger, like a candle, or special music (see binaural beats below!)

Some fun "Flip the Switch" (of your Brain)

This one can be tricky, especially in our busy over-stimulated world. It can be tough to really unplug at the end of a busy day and stop the rumination! Luckily with some practice we can learn to relax (and actually this month one of my guest speakers is covering this very topic!)

  • Breathing technique 4-7-8. This simple technique resets the nervous system. 1) INHALE for 4 seconds 2) HOLD for 7 seconds 3) EXHALE slowly for 8 seconds. *Repeat three times

  • Relaxation technique. Take your mind on a journey to a calm place. Bring awareness to any stress in your body and consciously let go of the tension.

  • Exercise daily. 15-20 minutes is enough; 45 minutes is better. Not too close to bedtime though!

  • Binaural beats. Binaural beats have been used to reduce anxiety, improve cognition and achieve deeper REM sleep by exposing two different sound frequencies in each ear. The trick is that it is that it is most effective with headphones (which may not be comfortable for sleeping), but you could try tuning in for part of your bedtime ritual before hitting the pillow. Available for free on YouTube (or click here).

Sleep As We Age

There are many reasons sleep can be disrupted as we age. Factors include: medications, incontinence, pain, restless legs, depression and anxiety and sleep apnea. I hope that the importance of good sleep at later stages will be the focus of further research and investigation, but for now, I found these recommendations helpful:

  • ASK about sleep. Be aware. The first step is to be aware if you (or your loved one) is having poor sleep. If you notice a change in behavior - increased agitation, confusion, falls, appetite - ask yourself if sleep patterns could be a cause. Make sure your doctor or nurse takes note of sleep patterns in the patient record, and ask about the effect of any medications on sleep.

  • MODIFY for comfort. Is there a practical change that can help sleep be more comfortable? Consider pillow props for pain, hot water bottles, nighttime underpants, soft motion-detection lights for the bathroom (so they turn off when not needed), minimizing disruptions (pets, sounds, etc).

  • Zeitgebers! (aka seek the sun :) This is my favorite remedy :) Light is one of the most powerful zeitgebers (sorry I had to use that word!) -- even 60 minutes of bright light has been shown to improve sleep and healing.


Perhaps a worrisome thought crossed your mind as you read this list: many of these practices are very difficult to follow in one of the most important health environments...a hospital.

In a hospital setting, patients can be surrounded by unfamiliar lights, sounds, people, and constant disruptions. Some of this cannot be avoided, of course, but sometimes it is possible to make changes if we ask. Let the doctors/nurses know that you believe healthy sleep is important and ask if it's possible to:

  • reduce monitoring

  • block out lights

  • add music

  • bring in a familiar routine

  • choose medications that don't interfere with healthy sleep

As a caregiver, simply being aware of the impact of a hospital visit on sleep (yours as well!) and your loved one's recovery can be a huge first step. Allow yourself extra time to readjust to the bedtime routine once you return home.

Have you tried any of these techniques? What questions do you have? Add your comments below and please check out the resources and references for more information.

Still need inspiration? Try this hypnotic hammock from Costa Rica :)




Say Goodnight to Insomnia by Gregg Jacobs

Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson

The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington


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