A lack of sleep can accelerate ageing among older adults

Margaret Jennings talks to an expert about how we can get enough shut-eye every night and hold back the years.

MAGGIE Thatcher famously survived on four hours of sleep a night. And although she may have become British prime minister at the age of 54 and held the position for 11 years with such limited shut-eye, she is far from the norm.

In fact three years ago research suggested that she may have had a special gene that predisposed her to staying alert 20 hours a day. Scientists at the Centre for Applied
Genomics in Philadelphia, USA, who studied 100 sets of twins, discovered that people carrying the specific gene variant were able to function on fewer than five hours of sleep per night.

Most of us ordinary mortals, however, need at least seven hours. And as we age, it is even more important that we recharge and recover once we lay our head down.

Previous research has indicated that a constant lack of sleep can make us age before our time, and a University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) study of participants aged 61 to 86, in 2015, even suggested that just one sleepless night can accelerate ageing in older adults.

But while we don’t want to become killjoys about the odd late night up, being aware of the many factors that can help or hinder a general good sleep pattern is essential.

For example, one of the surprising results from Irish research released last week
was that 51% of people had suffered from heartburn symptoms in the previous year and that 49% of these said the condition disturbed their sleep.

The research was carried out for Heartburn Awareness Week supported by Pfizer Ireland, a campaign which advises sufferers to look at their lifestyle habits and to also speak to their pharmacist and find a remedy to best treat this common, yet debilitating ailment.

While heartburn itself is uncomfortable during the day, the overall effect of keeping you awake at night robs you of those beneficial effects for ageing healthily and keeping disease at bay.

“A big meal too close to bedtime can make it difficult to get to sleep as your body is busy digesting this food,” says Dublin-based Deirdre McSwiney, a sleep technologist
and cognitive behavioural therapist for
insomnia.

“However, a light snack before bed is conducive to getting to sleep and if awake, never ever, eat in the middle of the night as it can cause heartburn and generally put digestion under pressure,” McSwiney tells Feelgood. “As we’ve discovered, up to 49% of heartburn sufferers in Ireland maintain it is a factor in their sleep disturbance, so recommendations to avoid this include avoiding fried food, alcohol, carbonated drinks, chocolate, and for some, tomatoes and garlic.

“For heartburn sufferers, I would also recommend raising the head of the bed or source pillows for reflux relief.”

In general, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, a poor diet, and lack of exercise, are lifestyle factors that affect our sleep, she points out.

“Opposites are at work here: caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and can prevent sleep onset. Alcohol, as a depressant, can
appear to help sleep but it ends up disrupting sleep; we need to use the bathroom during the night, or end up thirsty, as alcohol becomes absorbed.”

Other tips for good sleeping habits McSwiney gives, as we age are:

1. Connect your bed in your head with sleeping. Clear the bedroom of all screens and books. Go to bed only when sleepy, not just when tired. If you enjoy reading before sleep, try and do so in the armchair, not bed.

2. Try to keep to a regular sleep schedule, particularly getting up at the same time every morning, regardless of the type of night you had. Research shows older people suffer with early morning wakes. This is known as advanced phase syndrome. Quite normal as our bodies change, but many older people go to bed far too early. They can do so for warmth, security, comfort, pain relief, but they end up sleeping earlier and then increasing severity of early morning wakes. They watch TV, or read or listen to the radio in bed, but many are actually having micro sleeps and that is what impacts on nighttime sleep quality.

3. My advice for older people is regularity; later to bed and the same rising time planned for every morning. If any naps are to be taken, though best avoided, they should be short, timed, and if possible before 3 pm every day. Recommended lengths 25-30 minutes.

4. As we age our sleep can also be
disrupted by other disorders such as restless legs syndrome (RLS), periodic leg movement (PLMS), and sleep-related respiratory disturbance. Many of these conditions are treatable so it’s well worth speaking to someone about them in order to help achieve a good night’s sleep.

5. If you are worried about not sleeping and it is affecting your daytime functioning consider going to your doctor or trying
cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for
insomnia, a therapy that involves treating sleep difficulties which involves changing conditioned associations and reducing
sleep preoccupation and effort. The use of sleep diaries and questionnaires are used to monitor progress.


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