Over 50 and getting too little sleep? You may be raising your risk of chronic disease.

December 13, 2022 in Complementary & Integrative Medicine, Wellness  •  By Michael Scott, ND, MSA
helping older relatives with healthcare

A lot of people find it harder to get seven or eight hours of good sleep as they get older. But a recent study found that the impact of getting less than five hours of sleep a night once you’re older than 50 can have a significant impact on your overall health. The study, which was published in the journal PLOS Medicine, looked at data gathered on nearly 8,000 British civil service workers at the ages of 50, 60, and 70.

Researchers found an association between getting five or fewer hours of sleep per night with an increased risk of developing multiple chronic diseases. The increased risk applied to a range of chronic diseases, including heart disease, depression, some cancers, stroke, COPD, kidney disease, liver disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, and diabetes.

At age 50, for those getting less than five hours of sleep per night, the increase in risk of developing two or more chronic diseases was 30%. That risk rose as the people in the study aged. At 60, the increase in risk was 32%, and at 70 it was 40%.

It’s important to note that there are some limitations to the study:

  • The data on the amount of sleep the participants got was self-reported.
  • The majority of participants were males.
  • The majority were also white.

Tips to help you get the sleep you need as you get older

As you get older, your body undergoes changes that can affect how well and how long you sleep. Changes in hormone and melatonin levels can make it more difficult to fall asleep, cause you to have problems getting into a deep sleep, and make you wake more often during the night. Some people need to get up to urinate several times a night, disrupting their sleep. Others are living with chronic pain caused by joint and back problems or sleep apnea, which can make it more difficult to stay asleep at night. And some medications can cause sleep problems, such as SSRI antidepressants, decongestants, some medications for Parkinson’s disease, some blood pressure medications, some medications for asthma and COPD, and thyroid hormone replacement medications.

There are steps you can take to improve your sleep and positively impact your health:

  • Avoid naps. When you’re having sleep issues, daytime sleepiness and fatigue can make taking a nap sound like a good idea. Unfortunately, regular naps can compound your nighttime sleep problems. If you must nap, limit the time of your nap to 20 minutes by setting an alarm.
  • Develop a regular sleep schedule. As much as possible, go to bed and get up the same time each day, including weekends.
  • Create a calming pre-bedtime routine and a restful bedroom. Make time for non-screen based relaxation each night by taking a warm bath, reading a book, doing breathing exercises, meditating, or listening to music. To promote sleep, your bedroom should be dark, cool, and free of electronic devices.
  • Be active. Incorporate moderate intensity activity into each day. Aim to be active around the same time each day, but not within three hours of when you plan to go to bed.
  • Manage stress. If you’re stressed, try techniques to help you manage stress. Some options include yoga, tai chi, meditation, journaling, or deep breathing.
  • Try a naturopathic approach. Clinical research has found several naturopathic medicine approaches to be effective ways to promote healthy sleep and reduce episodes of insomnia. Talk with your health advisor, healthcare provider, or a naturopathic physician about treatment options including acupuncture, dietary supplements and botanicals such as L-tryptophan, melatonin, and valerian extract, or aromatherapy with lavender essential oil before bed.