The importance of sleep for elders

Diverse Elders Coalition

Learning the causes of sleep deprivation, especially in the winter, and how to overcome them are important steps for our elders to take in order to get a good night’s rest and increase their overall physical wellbeing.

Why sleep is important

Sleep deprivation, a lack of sleep that affects a person’s performance when awake, includes symptoms such as having trouble staying awake during daily activities and the need for caffeine to get started. Sleep deprivation can also lead to long term issues including memory impairment, weight gain, diabetes, a weakened immune system, an increased risk for heart disease, and hypertension. Furthermore, it has been found that sleep deprivation can lead to a shorter life.

Elders already don’t get enough sleep

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide a guide on how much sleep you need as you age. The guide states that adults age 18 to 60 years need seven or more hours per night, 61 to 64 year olds need seven to nine hours, and adults 65 and older need seven to eight hours. Unfortunately, more than 50 percent of older adults complained of having sleep troubles.

There are a variety of reasons elders seem to not be getting enough sleep. Not only do elders have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep, but they also have changes in patterns of their sleep, specifically more time spent in the lighter stages of sleep than in the deep stages of sleep. As people age they also are more likely to have pain, illness, medical conditions, or even medications that interrupt sleep. Furthermore, aging leads to an increase in sleep disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea.

How winter affects sleep negatively

If all of this wasn’t enough, the winter season can add additional challenges to getting a full night of sleep.

In the winter, daylight is more limited than other times of the year, which can directly impact sleep. Light impacts our pituitary which secretes melatonin, and melatonin helps to regulate the body’s sleep cycles. The more melatonin produced, which occurs when there is less light, the more a person will get tired and sluggish.

The cold air can also be a cause of sleep issues in the winter. Not only does the cold air also affect melatonin production, but heating homes in the winter can also cause issues with quality of sleep. When people heat their homes, the air can dry out the body’s mucus membranes and make the body more susceptible to illnesses such as the cold or flu, which can greatly affect the quality of sleep.

Finally, in the winter people also change their eating habits. During the holidays, Halloween through New Year’s Day, more people tend to consume food that are higher than normal in carbohydrates, sugar and calories. These types of foods can cause changes in hormone levels in the body, disrupting sleep cycles, which in turn also lead to increased changes in hormone levels.

Steps you can take to get proper sleep

There are many great resources out there with suggestions on how to get a better night of sleep. Activities that promote proper sleep hygiene include:

Sticking to a regular bedtime

Establishing pre-sleep rituals like bathing or reading

Exercising regularly but not within four hours of bedtime

Refraining from caffeine within six hours of bedtime

Avoiding smoking close to bedtime

Taking a midafternoon nap

Avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills

Other suggested activities to get better sleep include:

Setting the room temperature to be cool and comfortable, but not too dry

Getting some light exposure every day by going outside and/or using an artificial light

Dressing for the weather

Making sure your bedding works for you

Raising your humidity

Getting an air purifier

Keeping your nasal passages moist to avoid congestion and snoring

Eating lighter dinners

Making sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and relaxing

Removing electronic devices (TVs, computers, and smartphones) from the bedroom

The National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA) has prepared a fact sheet on sleep that you can print and share with your friends, family and communities. Visit or call 505-292-2001 for more information.

Nicole Van Nelson is the Technical Communications Analyst for the National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA).

This is the latest article in an ongoing series provided by the Diverse Elders Coalition, focusing on different segments of the elder population. For more information, visit

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