Share on Pinterest
New research finds that poor sleep can negatively affect your attitude about your age and your health as you grow older. EMS FORSTER PRODUCTIONS/Getty Images
  • Researchers have found a link between poor sleep and negative feelings about aging.
  • Poor sleep can also have detrimental effects on health.
  • Getting better sleep may improve your experience as you grow older.
  • Experts say there are several scientifically proven steps you can follow to get a better night’s sleep.

Do you feel older than your years when you first roll out of bed in the morning? University of Exeter researchers say it may be because you aren’t sleeping well.

According to the study’s lead author, Serena Sabatini, PhD, poor sleep quality has been linked to more negative feelings about aging, such as feeling older and having a worse outlook on aging.

In addition, people who don’t sleep well can become more prone to problems with their health.

They note, however, that treating sleep problems may improve people’s experiences of aging.

Altogether, 4,482 people ages 50 and older were included in the study.

The participants were part of another study called the PROTECT study. The goal of the PROTECT study is to learn what protects people’s cognitive health as they grow older.

This study came about because, during the PROTECT study, they noticed that many people were commenting on their sleep quality and how it related to how they felt.

Because of these comments, they decided to give the participants a questionnaire asking about their perceived sleep quality.

The questionnaire also asked about negative changes in memory, energy, independence, motivation, and activity.

The study participants completed the questionnaire two times, a year apart.

When the researchers analyzed the collected data, they found that the people who rated their sleep the worst felt older.

They also felt they were aging badly.

Experts say sleeping badly doesn’t just make you feel more negative about aging, but it can also have real effects on your health.

Stephanie Griggs, PhD, RN, assistant professor at Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing and faculty associate at Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University, said that, during sleep, we cycle through rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stages: N1, N2, and N3.

“These processes and the stages of sleep are essential to help us restore, recover from illness, repair our body, consolidate our memories, and regulate our emotions to name a few,” she said.

She further explained that different hormones are secreted or regulated during these various stages.

For example, growth hormone is secreted during NREM N3 (slow wave sleep). This hormone is responsible for repairing blood vessels. Griggs said this is important because tiny tears in the blood vessels can lead to plaque buildup and eventually a heart attack or stroke.

Cristiano Guarana, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, further explained that poor sleep can make thinking more difficult.

Sleep deprivation reduces the connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex of the brain, he said.

“In general, those regions are responsible for controlling our impulses and processing relevant information. For example, sleep-deprived individuals have lapses in attention, make poor choices, engage in unethical behavior, and are bad at regulating negative emotions,” he said.

“Basically, when individuals do not get enough sleep, they are less equipped to process information,” he concluded.

While bad sleep can affect your health and how you feel about aging, Griggs and Guarana both noted there are several scientifically proven ways you can improve your sleep quality.

Avoid daytime napping

Griggs said one of the processes that regulates sleep is sleep homeostasis. Pressure to sleep builds up during the day, she explained.

However, if we give in to the urge to nap, it reduces the pressure, making it more difficult to fall asleep at night.

Keep a regular schedule

Try to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time, even on weekends, said Guarana.

“The main reason that regularity is king,” he explained, “is because we do have an internal 24-hour biological clock that expects regularity.”

Avoid screens before bedtime

Griggs suggests avoiding blue light from screens 1 hour before you plan to go to bed.

Exposure to blue light can inhibit the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the timing of sleep. Darkness is needed to trigger melatonin release.

Keep your bedroom cool

Our body needs to drop its internal temperature by a couple of degrees in order to go to sleep and stay asleep. Guarana suggests aiming for about 65°F (18°C).

Keep your bedroom dark

In the same vein as avoiding screentime, you may also want to avoid other light sources that might interfere with melatonin production.

Griggs suggests using light-blocking shades or an eye mask if you need to block out light.

Train your brain to associate your bed with sleep

Guarana suggests that if you’ve been in bed for about 25 minutes and just can’t get to sleep, get up and do something different.

“The main reason for this is that the brain is learning to associate the bed with wakefulness,” said Guarana. “We need to stop this association.”

Return to bed when you do feel sleepy, he added.

Avoid dozing off in the evening

Griggs said if you’re tired and prone to falling asleep early in the evening, this can also contribute to poor sleep at night.

In this case, she suggests trying to avoid bright light in the early evening. She also suggests wearing sunglasses when outside and blue-light-blocking glasses when indoors.

You can also buy a fluorescent or LED tall lamp (200 to 300 lux) and sit by that for 2 to 3 hours in the evening.

A bluish white, or cool white, is better than a warm white, she said.

Avoid coffee and alcohol

Guarana suggests avoiding coffee in the afternoon and minimizing alcohol consumption in the evening.

Both will interfere with your ability to fall and stay asleep, he said.