May 23 2019

Does Sleep Quality Really Decline With Age? (Plus, What I Do & a Giveaway)

By Mark Sisson
28 Comments

One of the most common complaints people have as they age is poor quality sleep. They get less sleep than younger people, and, despite what you may have heard, their sleep requirements do not decline with age. A 70-year-old should still be getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night. The problem is that, for many different reasons, older people usually have issues getting the amount of sleep they need.

The popular approach is to accept poor sleep as an inevitable part of aging and find workarounds, ideally workarounds that require a lifelong prescription to a name-brand pharmaceutical. That’s not my way. I accept that the conventional approach may be warranted in certain cases, but it should be a last resort. A person should exhaust the diet, lifestyle, and exercise options before turning to the prescription pad.

What about that central position of the conventional wisdom: Declining sleep quality is a necessary function of age. Is that actually true?

Why Do We Equate Getting Older With Sleeping Poorly?

Age is a predictor of poor quality sleep, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. Not every older adult suffers from poor sleep, which means the passage of time alone cannot explain the loss of sleep quality. In fact, when you drill down deeper, you find that there are many health and lifestyle-related predictors of poor quality sleep among older adults.

Such as:

  • In older Taiwanese adults living in a retirement community, 42% reported sleep disturbances. The best predictors for low quality sleep were being sedentary, suffering from nighttime urination, using anti-hypertensive drugs, and having poor mental health.
  • In older Korean adults, 60% reported sleep issues. The best predictors for low quality sleep in this group were depression, pain, and poor self-rated health scores.
  • In older women, menopause can make getting good sleep harder. The night sweats and body temperature fluctuations (the body tends to drop its temperature in preparation for sleep, and heat flashes can interfere with this) are notorious sleep disruptors.

These are all modifiable risk factors. Even menopause. Menopause will happen, but the symptoms can be addressed and mitigated (though admittedly not easily). I actually wrote a post about this.

There is one specific cluster of neurons called the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus that acts as a “sleep switch”—releasing GABA and other inhibitory neurotransmitters that inhibit wakefulness. The ventrolateral preoptic nucleus has been shown to degrade with age, actually getting smaller over time; further research shows that the size of a person’s VPN correlates closely with their sleep quality. But there’s no indication that this is an inevitable consequence of aging. After all, the rate of VPN decline varies between individuals. Maybe some of that rate variation is genetic. Maybe some is environmental—based on how you live and eat and exercise. We do know that light and sun exposure during the day boosts serotonin levels, and serotonin is one of the precursors for VPN sleep activity. What if a lifetime of inadequate sun and daylight exposure causes the VPN to “atrophy”? There are many unanswered questions, but even if the VPN turns out to follow a strictly chronological decline, there are improvements to be made.

Other “inevitabilities” of aging are often a function of accruing compound interest on one’s failure to lead a healthy lifestyle. If we’ve neglected our health and wellness for our entire lives—often because we were following bad advice from the “experts” who were supposed to know better—that’s going to come to a head the older we get. The older we are, the worse our body will work. The more negative interest we’ll have accrued.

Okay, Sisson, that’s all well and good, but what if I’m already an older adult, I’ve already accrued a lifetime of suboptimal health, and my sleep is bad? What can I do?

5 Easy Ways To Improve Your Sleep (At ANY Age)

You can start addressing the issues right now, right today.

1. You can lift heavy things.

Resistance training has been shown to improve sleep quality in older adults. Three times a week, older adults lifted weights for 30 minutes in the morning and saw their sleep quality improve by 38%. It also works in older adults with poor sleep and depression.

2. You can walk.

A three-time weekly walking program for four weeks helped older Nepalese adults improve their sleep quality.

3. You can reduce your alcohol intake.

A few years ago, I noticed that my nightly glass or two of wine was messing with my sleep, so I gave it up and my sleep improved immediately. I’ve since re-introduced Dry Farm natural wine—lower in alcohol and sulfites, higher in antioxidants and complexity—and have no issues. If you drink on a regular basis and have trouble with sleep, try giving up alcohol for a month. It’s a potentially very easy fix.

4. You can avoid artificial light after dark.

This doesn’t just work in younger people. There is strong evidence that exposure to artificial light after dark is linked to insomnia in older adults. Wearing blue-blocking goggles or simply not using electronic devices after dark are easy fixes.

5. You can get more natural light in the morning and daytime.

In older adults, getting more natural light in the daytime hours has a direct effect of improving sleep quality.

Hey, it’s almost like everything in our lives is connected. Some people find this overwhelming and depressing—”how can I possibly fix everything?” I find it empowering. It fills me with optimism because addressing one piece of the chain can get everything else moving in the right direction. Just look at the study with depressed older adults who had trouble sleeping. All they had to do was start lifting heavy things a few times a week and all their major issues began resolving, or at least improving. That’s powerful.

Now imagine if you tried everything. Imagine if you started lifting weights, walking, reduced your alcohol intake. Imagine the changes you could see. Now imagine if you did this from early adulthood and never stopped. Imagine how you’d sleep. Oh, and don’t neglect the power of a consistent routine.

What I Do (and One Thing That’s Made the Biggest Difference)

Last year, I released a video of my nighttime routine. Now that I’m in Miami, the setup has changed but I still do the same basic stuff.

I live in a condo now that has a great spa. I do “fire and ice” before dinner almost every night”—usually 7-10 minutes sauna, 3-4 minutes cold plunge at 50 degrees, repeat a few times. So, no longer right before bed. But it has the effect of making me relaxed and sleep-ready a few hours after a light dinner.

But there’s one tool I began using a couple years ago that has probably made the most difference of any particular strategy: controlling the temperature of my bed.

Ambient temperature matters for sleep quality. My chiliPAD has become indispensable. (Disclosure: I became such a fan that I eventually invested in the company.) Carrie uses one, too. We have different ideal temperature ranges. Mine cools to 65 at bedtime, but with the app I can set it to rise to 68 at 3:00 A.M. (otherwise I get a little too much heat loss), 70 at 5:00 A.M. and then 75 at 6:45 to help me wake up.  It makes a huge difference and has real evolutionary antecedence; humans spent many millennia sleeping on a cold surface (the ground) covered with animal skins. It’s what our genes still expect from us.

How’s your sleep, older (or not) readers? What’s worked, what hasn’t? If you have any questions about sleep, drop them down below and I’ll follow up!

Now For the Giveaway…

Whenever I find a product I truly love, I want to share it. Today it’s for two lucky winners.

The great folks at ChiliTechnology have offered two of their cooling systems for MDA readers (the two Carrie and I use): a chiliPAD system and their new OOLER system. Both offer the same fully programmable cooling technology to help you manufacture your best night’s sleep. Plus, I’m throwing in a Primal Essentials Kit (Damage Control, Primal Omegas, Primal Sun, Primal Probiotics and Adaptogenic Calm) because good health and great sleep go hand-in-hand.

One winner will nab the chiliPAD, plus Primal supplements package.

The second winner will enjoy the OOLER system, plus Primal supplements package.

To enter to win:

1. Follow @marksdailyapple + @chilisleep + @primalblueprint
2. Tag two friends in the comments from this giveaway post.

Open to US only. The winner will be announced and contacted via Instagram direct message on Thursday, May 30th.

Good luck, everybody!

References:

Park JH, Yoo MS, Bae SH. Prevalence and predictors of poor sleep quality in Korean older adults. Int J Nurs Pract. 2013;19(2):116-23.

Ferris LT, Williams JS, Shen CL, O’keefe KA, Hale KB. Resistance training improves sleep quality in older adults a pilot study. J Sports Sci Med. 2005;4(3):354-60.

Singh NA, Clements KM, Fiatarone MA. A randomized controlled trial of the effect of exercise on sleep. Sleep. 1997;20(2):95-101.

TAGS:  Aging

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28 thoughts on “Does Sleep Quality Really Decline With Age? (Plus, What I Do & a Giveaway)”

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  1. Wish more of these contests were by email or something other than social media ’cause I have none…

    1. Ding! Social media is a drag. My productivity and happiness increased exponentially when I closed my accounts several years ago and I haven’t missed them at all. Several companies have groups I’d like to join, but they are FB based, so I don’t. Probably better in the end – I just end up making or finding groups IRL. Very Primal!

  2. “A person should exhaust the diet, lifestyle, and exercise options before turning to the prescription pad.”

    Words to live by, for sleep issues and otherwise!

  3. Thank you for this article. This made me think about my struggle to get off of beta blockers (knock on wood, I think I’m free of them… maybe). And am wondering if the years when I needed baclofen as part of a three part migraine prevention system have harmed my VPN even more than usual. I’d have only one insomnia day per year before I turned 30 and I think that’s too young to have sleep problems as difficult as mine. Baclofen is a synthetic GABA analogue that binds more tightly to the receptor than natural GABA. I’m now unsure if I should take less of it or more of it. My doctor has recently been saying maybe I should take more because it has a fairly good safety record. But if it’s driving the VPN shrinkage, I don’t know. Maybe the damage is already done. I never increased my dose because I get very depressed if I’m on too high a dose. Seems like the answer is to take less of it.

    I actually have “sacrifice nights” now when I don’t take sleep drugs so they don’t stop working. This is one of those nights. What’s worse than having to take sleep drugs is having to have sacrifice nights when they stop working.

    Not seeking pity, just stating where I”m at. Would love to know that someone else was in a place as bad as this and worked it out so they were better. Sleep is the one thing I’ve never been able to solve. Many health issues have improved, but this one is still kicking my ass.

  4. Supplementing with magnesium glycinate helps my 67 yo Mom get and stay asleep.
    On another note, does the climate you grew up in effect ideal sleep temp? If the house is under 70, I have a hard time getting to sleep. I’m a native of South Florida

  5. Nighttime urination can be a huge issue. I’ve suffered from nocturia since my early 20’s (I’m 37 now). Waking up 3x/night to pee is pretty standard, and 4-5 times can happen. It’s very disruptive. I’ve been to three different doctors, tried half a dozen drugs, prostate exam (normal), and even done a 72-hour “voiding diary” (i.e., measure all liquids that go in and out for 3 days. All that to find out that I don’t drink water excessively and my urine production is on the high side of normal).

    I’ve accumulated days on Google searching for a solution. Any insight you might be able to offer would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Mark.

    1. As a 60 y/o female, I can certainly relate Daniel. I go through bouts where I will get up at least once per hour … you said it: VERY disruptive. That along with some minor joint/muscle issues and stress = major sleep debt. I have gone to conventional Drs …. they are near useless. So I continue to research on my own ….

  6. I struggle with sleep and have found that blue blocking glasses definitely help me, as does getting more natural light during the day. Taking magnesium before bed (I like Natural Calm) seems to help, as does a consistent routine. Definitely entering the giveaway…thank you!

  7. I understand and completely agree with the blocking light to sleep but am wondering about summertime light here in the west coast of Ireland its bright at 5am and the birds start their dawn chorus wonderful to hear sunset is about 1030pm the most stunning place in the world if only I didnt gave to spend hours and hours during the week commuting and then into my corporate cubicle

  8. As a post-menopausal woman, I can attest to how difficult it can get. Some nights, I could only sleep for 3 – 4 hours. Luckily, I had an Ob/Gyn doctor who was an older woman, AND had done research. She advised me to do hormone replacement, and calmed my fears of it. Apparently, much of the early research.was flawed, and more recent research was more positive. And I knew that if I continued working full time, and driving an hour to and from work every day, I would fall asleep at the wheel, and die on the road. And/or kill someone else on the road.
    Hormones can let you sleep again. Wonderful.

  9. A few years ago, in my mid-40s, I started having issues with staying asleep. 2-3 times a week, I’d wake up between 2-4 a.m. And not be able to fall back to sleep. I tried lots of different approaches, blue light glasses before bed, etc. I hadn’t been working out for years (just regular walking and daily movement) due to some joint injuries, but I’ve lost 40 lbs over the past year (yay!) after cutting out grains and most sugars, so in January I decided to go back and give a basic you tube HIIT workout a try again.
    I started slowly, and added it in 3 days a week. Within two weeks, I was sleeping like a rock again! It was amazing. I felt better than ever. Last month, I injured my knee a bit on some bleachers and had to take a month off. Sleep issues returned. I just stareted back on my workouts, and I’m back to great sleep, so brief periods of intense exercise seems to be the key for me.

  10. Key tips have been posted to improve sleep for old aged people. A consistent time for sleep could be tip for sound sleep. 10 PM to 6 AM is the ideal time for sleep.

  11. Why is it Canadians are allowed to buy your products but not enter your contests?
    This is quite a common occurrence with many of theses types of sites and contests. Is there a law that excludes Canadians?

  12. Good Day Sir; my question on the interesting chilipad
    Do you also have a special bed/mattress? that is required with the chilipad system. I have now ordered your keto books so I can do it correctly.
    Thanks for all you do.. Sunday blog is awesome

    1. Glen, thanks for your question. There’s no special bed or mattress to use the chiliPAD system. The pad rests on top of your mattress (under the sheets), and the temperature control unit sits by the bed on the floor. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Grok on — M

  13. I have been trying to work on sleep tracking erratic sleep on Fitbit , usually wake up from temperature changes this would be very helpful

  14. Obstructive Sleep Apnea, hypopnia, and Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome can also increase with age, as muscle tone decreases and fat increases in our airway.
    It can be helpful to get checked for these conditions and use a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine if they indicate it will help.
    The percentage of undiagnosed people who nevertheless have these conditions is large..