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It’s time to wake up to better sleep

A television series featuring a celebrity doctor reveals some of the secrets behind a good night’s slumber.

  • Health
  • Read Time: 5 mins

Why does sleep change as we age?

After middle age, our body clock gradually changes. As we get older, the hormones that help us sleep are released earlier in the day.

Some older adults feel sleepy earlier in the evening than before and wake up earlier in the morning.

Older people produce less melatonin, which is a natural hormone that promotes sleep.

Other factors that may interfere with sleep include hot flushes in postmenopausal women and the need to go to the toilet during the night.

Pain may make it difficult to stay in one position for the whole night.

Also, after retirement, many people find it convenient to take a short nap during the day, which can reduce the need for sleep at night.

It is a feature of growing older that sleep patterns change. Many older people either don’t get the amount of sleep they did when younger or their sleep is spread throughout the night and day.

However, it’s not just older people who can expect disrupted and less sleep. Doctors are discovering that while 7-9 hours of sleep is recommended, more than a third of adults sleep outside of that range.

Flinders University’s global study of thousands of adults found only 15% of people slept the recommended 7-9 hours for five or more nights per week.

Even among those who did have an average of 7-9 hours per night over the nine-month monitoring period, about 40% of the nights fell outside the ideal range.

The Flinders research group used sleep tracker data collected by an under-mattress sensor to examine the sleep durations of almost 68,000 adults worldwide.

The research features in a television series that exposes the magnitude of Australia’s growing sleep crisis – with up to 40% of the population experiencing inadequate sleep, an estimated 15% suffering from chronic insomnia, and about 20% of people fitting the diagnosis for sleep apnoea.

British filmmaker, physician, and chronically poor sleeper, Dr Michael Mosley, made the three-part documentary series, Sleep Revolution, and is a patient in the trial.

The good news is the study was a success. More than 80% of participants, long-term sufferers of insomnia or sleep apnoea or both, had their sleep problems resolved. All of the patients had a marked ­improvement in their sleeping habits in some way.  

Poor sleeping is serious

Did you know deprivation of sleep is classified as torture under the Geneva Conventions? Yet so many of us take it for granted, without consulting a doctor.

To be deprived of sleep for long periods can lead to a premature death. It’s during sleep that the body maintains and repairs itself, detoxifying organs, repairing damaged cells, and calming restless minds.

However, even doctors say sleep is an area of medical science that is poorly understood. Doctors are treating conditions such as high blood pressure, anxiety, diabetes, depression, and obesity often without addressing a key underlying health factor: inadequate sleep.

Sleeping less than six hours on average per night is associated with increased mortality risk and multiple health conditions including hypertension, obesity, and heart disease.

Less than seven hours and more than nine hours of sleep a day has been linked to adverse health and wellbeing, including digestive and neuro-behavioural deficits.

The researchers concluded that, based on the study findings, public health and advocacy efforts need to: 

  • Support the community and individuals to achieve more regular sleep within the recommended range for their age 

  • Encourage everyone to make sleep a priority  

  • Better support people resolve chronic sleep difficulties. 

Sleep researchers’ tips

Here's some expert advice that might help you achieve better sleep.

  • In the short term, try to maintain a sleep schedule that is sufficient to feel rested enough, as often as you can. Keeping a fixed wake-up time, even on weekends, and going to bed when you feel sleepy will help ensure you frequently get enough restorative sleep.

  • If you can’t keep a consistent sleep schedule due to unavoidable commitments (e.g. shift work), then catch-up sleep is recommended.

  • Monitor symptoms of insufficient sleep: daytime drowsiness, fatigue, struggling to maintain concentration, poor memory, and potentially making errors while driving.

  • People who feel like they might not be sleeping enough, especially those currently sleeping less than seven hours, could test whether allowing a longer sleep schedule or naps helps them sleep longer and results in them feeling more rested.

  • Those with a sleep disorder should avoid caffeine and alcohol in the afternoon, reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption across the day, and/or avoid a heavy meal close to bedtime.

  • Consult your GP if you are concerned. Treatment options are available through referrals to sleep specialists for disorders such as sleep apnoea and insomnia.

Related reading: Flinders University, The Australian, SBS 


John Austin

John Austin

Policy and Communications Officer

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