I’ve always been a really bad sleeper. But one thing I’ve noticed as I’ve moved into my late early 30s, as I am determined to call my current age, is that my sleep is getting measurably worse. Even just a couple drinks seems to wreck my ability to fall asleep, whereas it used to help me pass out (even if the resultant sleep wasn’t particularly restful). I often wake up an hour before I need to for no reason. And playing video games even hours before bedtime elicits way more Tetris effect than it used to. None of this is fun.
It’s thin comfort, but I’m far from alone — it turns out that significantly worsening sleep is an unfortunate fact of aging for many people, and it begins at a relatively tender age (as Cari Romm noted last month). As Mark Barna writes on Discover Magazine’s website, “according to a recently published review called ‘Sleep and Human Aging,’ by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, many older people have unhealthful sleep due to age-related physiological changes. These changes can begin as early as the 30s.”
Barna paints a fairly depressing picture of the stuff going on in our bodies that causes all this:
It begins in the 30s, mostly for men. Delta sleep declines by 50 percent in some men when compared to sleep in their 20s, according to EEGs, or electroencephalography tests. For women, the decline is less but still up to 25 percent. Meanwhile, neurochemicals that switch us from sleep to wakefulness are drying up. This contributes to grogginess during the day and a maddening alertness at night.
Many middle-agers and about half of seniors complain of having trouble falling asleep and waking up repeatedly during the night, sometimes staying up for hours. Though men bear the early brunt of sleep changes, women catch up. Women postmenopause complain of sleep disturbance more often than men of similar age, the researchers say.
As Barna points out, there’s unfortunately little that can be done about any of this. Some of the suggestions he mentions, though, echo what I was told by a sleep specialist I’ve seen a few times. He told me that the most important thing is to not go to bed too early — if you’re tossing and turning for any significant length of time, you should probably be up reading or something instead — and to get up at the same time each and every day. Getting 30 minutes of sunlight right after you wake up is also important, he told me, because it sets your circadian clock in a way that will make you tired when it’s time to go to bed (even if it’s cloudy that’s still enough light, and way more than one of those artificial lights). I found it really did help, at least a bit — it’s hard to stick with when you need to be online for work, though. Just like it’s hard to stay away from screens, maintain a consistent bedtime, or follow so many other “sleep hygiene” tips. Getting older is the worst.