After decades of toiling in the working world, you’re exhausted. Retirement is your chance for renewal, where you can regain energy and lust for life.
That’s the grand plan. But don’t count on that renewal: Many retirees no longer stick to a work schedule, so their sleeping patterns change—not necessarily for the better.
You might end up tired and retired. Insomnia can become your new nighttime scourge as you ponder how and why your circadian rhythms got so out of whack.
“Many people 65+ find that their sleep quality diminishes,” said Brandon Peters, M.D., a sleep physician at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. “You may only need seven or eight hours of sleep. But you may spend nine or 10 hours in bed” due to sleeping in.
Lounging in bed feels good at the time. But it comes at a cost: It can throw off the consistent cycle of waking up on cue that you established during your work life and leave you less able to sleep soundly.
Other factors can cause you to struggle to fall asleep, experience wakeful periods throughout the night or awake prematurely (say, around 4:00 a.m.). Examples include side effects from medications or a more sedentary lifestyle that leaves you less apt to sleep well. Even relatively minor ailments, like leg cramps, afflict older people more often and disrupt sleep.
The path to better sleep starts with regulating your circadian patterns. Getting exposure to direct sunlight soon after you wake up helps because light keeps circadian rhythms in check.
“I tell my patients to get 15 minutes of sunlight within 15 minutes of waking,” said Peters, author of “Sleep Through Insomnia.” “Consistent, natural lighting exposure” is better than remaining indoors in a well-lit room.
Regular exercise during the day—or at least maintaining an active lifestyle and limiting napping—increases the odds of sleeping soundly at night. In the hour before bedtime, engage in a relaxing activity such as pleasure reading or even watching a non-stressful television program.
“It’s OK to watch television before bed, as long as the TV is in a different room from your bedroom,” Peters said. “It’s important to have that time to unwind.”
Yet he cautions against bringing your phone into bed and glancing at it as you tuck yourself in. Depending on your phone’s display and brightness settings, the light can stymie your efforts to fall asleep.
“Having a [TV] screen across the room is different from light that’s directly in front of your face,” Peters said.
If you’re going to read in bed, Peters recommends printed books although he adds that tablets “are probably fine.” Just make sure to use settings that filter out blue light on the screen. Selecting the night reading mode (usually white text on black background) might help as well.
Another common cause of persistent awakenings is obstructive sleep apnea. Left untreated, it can lead to other health problems.
Peters suggests that older people enroll in a sleep study if they’re concerned about sleep disorders. Use the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s online directory to find an accredited sleep center that diagnoses and treats such issues.
Sleep studies are usually covered by insurance. After an initial consultation, you may be able to participate from home under the care of a certified sleep medicine physician.