Sleep has a profound impact on our health and our daily function. As we age, we might find our sleep patterns changing. For instance, we might wake multiple times in the night, or wake up earlier in the morning than we’re used to. Sometimes, we may feel that our sleep isn’t as deep as it once was.
These changes aren’t only just inconvenient. They can have a significant impact on our cognitive functioning, our health, and our overall quality of life. Sleep disruption can lead to memory issues, an increased risk of falls, and a reduction of our ability to perform the everyday tasks that are necessary to functioning in life. Our mood and general sense of wellbeing can also be negatively affected. As such, understanding all the factors that help with sleep quality in older adults is a crucial part of healthy and happy aging.
Sleep tends to come easier and is more restful in a cooler environment. This isn’t just arbitrary, it’s rooted in our biology. While sleeping, our body temperature naturally dips, which helps us to initiate and maintain sleep. When our sleeping environment is too warm, it can interfere with this temperature drop, which can disrupt our sleep.
Recent research has explored how these biological tendencies can interact with our physical environment. Sleep quality was monitored in 50 older adults over a period of 18 months, focusing on how ambient temperature affected sleep. Research revealed that sleep quality was highest when the ambient temperature of the room was between 68 and 74 degrees, and usually dropped in quality as the temperature increased beyond 75 degrees.
Climate change, a term which is now familiar to us all, is causing shifts in the weather patterns and temperature norms of our planet. One subtle, but crucial, aspect of climate change is a rise in nighttime temperatures, which is a trend that has been gradually increasing and is predicted to continue. As our planet warms, so too do our nights become hotter. In addition to this, urban areas are often much warmer than their surroundings at night, due to a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. This effect is only increasing as urban expansion replaces more and more of our green spaces with buildings, roads, and cars.
So where does climate change intersect with sleep and the health of older adults? Warmer nights can disrupt sleep, and climate change is causing hotter nights. This can be problematic for older adults especially, who may have more fragile sleep patterns already due to the processes of aging. In light of climate change, sleep disruptions and the health implications thereof may become a more widespread issue for older adults.
The situation, while challenging, is not without hope. There are various strategies one can use to manage warmer nights. Using fans, or air conditioning, to maintain a room temperature between 68 and 74 degrees at night is a good start. Making sure to remain hydrated through the day, especially before bed, is another good idea. Sleeping in light, breathable clothes, as well as using light covers on the bed is also helpful.