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How we sleep at 40, 50, 60, 70 and beyond

At every stage of life, our sleep faces different challenges. Often the problems start already in middle age. Changes in hormones that affect sleep and circadian rhythms, a higher risk of health problems that affect sleep, and chronic stress are some of the most common reasons why our sleep becomes more problematic as we age.

If in early adulthood we neglected to pay attention to our sleep and did not invest in good habits, then in middle age this free ride usually ends. In order to sleep well and reap the benefits of quality rest, we need to pay attention to our sleep every day.


What to expect as we age?

What sleep looks like from the mid-40s and 50s

You slept like a log in your 20s and pretty well in your 30s, even into your mid-40s. And then, sometime in your late 40s and 50s, your sleep has started to become, shall we say, erratic. You go to bed exhausted but still can't fall asleep. You wake up at least once or twice a night, sometimes to go to the bathroom, sometimes just like that. You often don't sleep until morning, waking long before the alarm, dreaming of that extra 45 minutes or hour of rest. Welcome to the dream of middle age!


These years are some of the most challenging for sleep. Given all that happens during this stage of life, it's hardly a surprise that sleep is especially complicated. Many of us during these years go through the pains of parenthood while at the same time putting in a lot of effort to give our all at work. We're probably also caring for aging parents, wondering how we're going to pay for the kids' education, and starting to think about saving for retirement. These are just some of the reasons why chronic stress and worry is such a big problem in middle age.


At the same time, there is a lot going on in our body, which also makes sleep a challenge. In both men and women, the hormones that support healthy sleep begin to decline. At the same time, other hormones that disrupt sleep, incl. cortisol, often jump, precisely because of stress and continued lack of sleep.


For women, these are usually the transition and menopause years - a huge challenge for sleep. More than half of premenopausal women sleep less than 7 hours a night, and nearly 25% report having trouble falling asleep four or more times a week.


But what is an even more common problem than difficulty falling asleep? Let's sleep without waking up. About 31% of premenopausal women report waking up at least four nights a week. About 50% say they wake up in the morning more tired than rested four or more days a week.


Men facing hormonal problems specific to them in middle age, incl. decrease in testosterone. Shorter sleep suppresses testosterone production, which leads to even more problems with sleep and overall health, incl. sleep apnea and sexual dysfunction.


In both men and women, during these years, insomnia has a particular impact on weight gain and metabolic health. The combination of ongoing biological changes, stressful daily lives, and full schedules can't help but affect our sleep or our desire for physical activity, which, in turn, would noticeably improve our weight or sleep, at any age and especially in these years. .


You've probably already read or heard about the link between poor sleep and weight gain. If you don't get enough sleep your body needs, you will pack on the pounds no matter what you do. Studies of metabolism during sleep have found that sleep-deprived people consume an average of 285 extra calories per day.


Hormones have a lot to do with it. When you're sleep-deprived, cortisol levels are high and serotonin levels are low, and your body begins to crave starchy, sweet, or fatty foods to boost serotonin production and calm stress. At the same time, lack of sleep increases the hunger hormone ghrelin and suppresses the satiety hormone leptin, which signals when we've eaten enough.


What to watch out for: Follow daily habits and choices that improve sleep and avoid those that interfere with it. A good diet, regular exercise and proper stress management will definitely make a positive difference to your sleep during these busiest and most challenging years of life.


What does sleep look like at 60


For many people, this is super unfair: just as their lives become more sleep-friendly, their ability to sleep declines. Both men and women in their sixties often have more free time, better control over their schedules (the kids have gone their own way), and generally less stress. But the physiological changes that occur make sleep more of a challenge than ever.


For women, this is usually the first decade after menopause. This may actually improve sleep, but it also carries other risks. Menopausal symptoms – hot flashes, headaches, anxiety, mood swings – often ease post menopause. Sleep problems also decrease. With the normalization of hormonal fluctuations, for some women, sleep problems gradually disappear. But the process is highly individual and varies greatly from woman to woman.


For both men and women, the risk of sleep disorder, incl. sleep apnea and insomnia increased with aging. Men also experience significant hormonal problems at this age. You've certainly heard of menopause, but do you know what andropause is? This is the period of drastic reduction in testosterone production that usually, though not in all men, occurs after the age of 60. Research shows that about 20% of men in their 60s and over 50% of men in their 80s go through andropause. The symptoms are a drop in energy, increased fatigue, low mood and, respectively, poor quality sleep.


In our 60s, it often takes us longer to fall asleep, and the length of a night's sleep decreases. Sleep can become more restless and fragmented, we wake up easily at night and find it harder to fall asleep again. Pain and other health problems are an increasingly common companion and also affect our sleep.


What to watch out for: focus on sleep hygiene. Quality sleep is completely possible even in older age, but usually it doesn't happen by chance. Maintaining good sleep takes some commitment and attention as you get older. Sticking to a regular schedule, sunlight in the morning, avoiding stimulants at inappropriate times (eg caffeine, etc.) can help you continue to sleep well into your 60s.


What sleep looks like at 70 and beyond


There is a belief that as we age we need less sleep. While it is true that older people often sleep less and that their sleep is usually broken up into shorter intervals over a 24-hour period, this is not necessarily the result of a change in their needs. As with other important questions about sleep, there is still no definitive answer to this question. But most researchers suggest that our individual sleep needs remain largely the same throughout our lives. If you needed 7 hours of sleep to feel at your best in your 30s, that's probably the amount of sleep you'll need at 70 to feel good.


It is true, however, that the sleep cycles of people in their 70s are much different than those of young adults. A 20-year-old person may spend 20% of their sleep time in the recovery phase of slow waves. In the early 70s, time in deep sleep can decrease to 5%. REM sleep, especially important for mental and emotional recovery, also generally declines with age, but not as drastically as slow-wave sleep. Adults in their 70s, 80s and 90s spend much more time in light sleep, when sleep is more likely to be more fragmented and unrefreshing. Shorter sleep time means fewer sleep cycles per night, which in turn leads to shorter time in each sleep phase.


What other physiological changes occur at this age? Changes in bio-time and decline in melatonin production. Melatonin levels gradually decline from our younger years, and research shows that by the time we reach 70, nighttime melatonin levels are just as low as daytime melatonin levels were in our younger years. Melatonin is the important sleep hormone and maintains a healthy biorhythm. Its decline may be a significant factor in age-related changes in sleep.


In older people, the biorhythms themselves may shift to earlier. This means that we prefer to wake up and be active earlier in the morning and go to bed earlier at night. In some people, this can totally change their chronotype – ie. when we prefer to be awake and when to sleep. If you used to sleep in in the morning, you may not feel like it anymore. Of course, the changes are strictly individual, depending on many factors, incl. and whether you are male or female.


What to remember from this article, no matter how old you are?


Invest in your dream NOW. It's never too late to make improvements that will benefit your health and performance. And the attention you pay to healthy sleep today will pay off for years and decades to come.

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