Sleeping– it's not just for babies!

Six tips to help seniors sleep better

November 4, 2015

If you don't sleep like a baby anymore, you're not alone. As we age, our brains change, which affects how we sleep. "Sleep patterns change as we get older," explains Dr. Julie Carrier, a scientist with the Centre for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine in Montreal. Many older adults go to bed and wake up earlier, take more naps and sleep less at night. They also tend to wake up more often and sleep more lightly.

The University of Montreal's Centre for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine, has several labs where researchers use advanced technology to explore the different aspects of sleep. These include how chronic pain affects our sleep, why we sleepwalk, how sleep patterns change after a brain injury and the sensitivity of our brains to light.

"We've all seen how a baby can sleep right through a Christmas party," says Dr. Julie Carrier. "By the time we reach the age of 50, it's just not possible!"

As we sleep, our brains get a chance to recharge. But gradually, our brains lose that capacity, which can affect our ability to learn and remember. Dr. Carrier and her colleagues are looking at ways to stimulate the brain to give older adults back the sleep qualities that they have lost.

"Some people think of it as searching for the 'Fountain of Youth'," she says, laughing.

Her research is still in its early stages. In the meantime, if you're tired of counting sheep, try these six tips for a better sleep:

  1. Cut back on smoking, as well as coffee and alcohol.
  2. Stay active and eat well, but as bedtime approaches, don't eat too much and stop exercising.
  3. Make sure your bedroom is quiet and dark, with a comfortable temperature.
  4. Go to bed at the same time every night.
  5. Try to avoid stress at bedtime.
  6. Don't panic! Many changing sleep patterns are normal. But if you're not sleeping well, talk to your doctor. Your insomnia might be caused by a medical condition.

Dr. Carrier's work is funded in part by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Dr. Julie Carrier
Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine (CARSM)
University of Montreal
Reproduced with permission from the University of Montreal.

Audio – Interview with Julie Carrier

Transcript

David Coulombe: This is David Coulombe for CIHR News. Do you have enough sleep? Do you consider that sleeping is a waste of time? How will your sleep evolve when you get older?

Dr. Julie Carrier, a CIHR funded researcher is with us today to answer our questions on sleep.

Dr. Carrier, hello.

Dr. Julie Carrier: Hello.

David Coulombe: Dr. Carrier, why is it so important to sleep?

Dr. Julie Carrier: Sleep is highly important for all your brain and your physical functions. Actually, we know that sleep is important - to memorize, to regulate your emotions, to think, to have good cognition and, in the past ten years, we realized that sleep is not only important for the brain, but is also very important for all your physiological functions. Like, sleep will improve your immune system, will help you to regulate your hormones, will help regulate your blood tension, will also help to have a good cardiovascular health.

David Coulombe: Do we sleep less or more than our grand-parents?

Dr. Julie Carrier: Unfortunately, people sleep less. Some people sleep less because they have a sleep problem, but what is very sad is that a lot of people are sleeping less because they try to be more productive. Sleep is seen as something that is unproductive and this is a big mistake because if you don’t sleep well, as I said previously, you will be less able to be productive in terms of your cognitive functions but also you will have a major impact on your physical health.  

David Coulombe: A lot of people have trouble sleeping though and many people either drink alcohol or take sleeping pills. What’s your comment on this?

Dr. Julie Carrier: I think that for some people, I mean for a short period of time it might be ok to take some sleep aids to help you. Not alcohol, but what is available on the drug market. Not the drug, but the pharmaceutical market. But, we need to be cautious about that because most of those drugs actually have an impact on your sleep architecture so you will have sleep that is of less quality and, also, most of those sleep aids will have a limited time that they work before you will develop a tolerance to them and they will be less effective at some point in time. The big message is to try to find other ways to improve your sleep quality.

David Coulombe: My last question for you: Is there a difference between men and women in terms of sleeping habits?

Dr. Julie Carrier: There are some differences. Women will tend to show more insomnia. And for other sleep disorders like sleep apnea, at least in some age range, men will have more of those respiratory arrests during their sleep. But in terms of sleep architecture, the sleep stages and how sleep is constructed, we do not find many sex differences.

David Coulombe: Maybe in thirty seconds; do you have any advice for people who have problems sleeping?

Dr. Julie Carrier: Yes, you need to be aware that sleep is like any other physiological functions. I mean for good health, I think that we learned that we needed to eat well and that we needed to exercise. I think that my wish is that people will take care of their sleep as much as they take care of other aspects of their life. In order to do that, prioritize their sleep and to make sure they sleep at regular times, that they tend to avoid stimulants close to the bedtime and that they have a healthy life.

David Coulombe: Dr. Julie Carrier, a CIHR funded researcher. Thanks for this Dr. Carrier.

Dr. Julie Carrier: Thank you.

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