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Aging and sleep: Experts weigh in on the importance of sleep

Getting a full eight hours is more important than you think.
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While it's important to invest time in improving mental wellness and keeping up a consistent fitness routine, sleep will forever remain one of the most vital factors in our long-term health.

However, getting a good night's sleep isn't always the easiest thing to achieve, especially since we'll be losing an hour of sleep due to daylight saving time this weekend. A cup of coffee after a night of tossing and turning might be enough to get you through the day, but have you ever stopped to think about how a lack of shut-eye might impact your health down the line — specifically the way you age?

Whether you're dealing with a lot of stress or other outside factors are getting in the way of you getting your zzz's, we asked sleep experts for their tips on improving the quality of our sleep as we get older, and how to keep up with our "beauty sleep."

Why is sleep important for adults?

"Unfortunately, research shows that our sleep systems start to weaken as we age, so sleep fragmentation and insomnia symptoms are higher among older individuals compared to younger," Dr. Rebecca Robbins, instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School and sleep scientist at Brigham & Women's Hospital, told Shop TODAY. "Fortunately, for all of us, barring the presence of a sleep disorder, small changes can go a very long way toward improving the quality and the quantity of our sleep."

According to Dr. Angela Holliday-Bell, a physician and certified sleep specialist in Virginia, the average adult needs around 7-8 hours of sleep per night. However, that may not be the case for everyone.

"Sleep need is like a shoe size, in that the amount of sleep needed per individual varies," Holliday-Bell said. "Some need as little as six hours while others need up to 10."

How does sleep impact aging?

A 2015 study suggests that a lack of sleep can affect aging at the biological level, as well as increase chronic disease risk, due to an accumulation of damage that affects the molecular processes involved with aging.

While the impact may be happening at the cellular level, you might see it manifest in other ways.

"If you are not getting an adequate amount of sleep, it can definitely lead to early signs of aging such as increased wrinkling and sagging of the skin as well as bags and dark circles under the eyes," Holliday-Bell said. "Aside from cosmetic changes, insufficient sleep can lead to obesity and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and events."

Expert tips for getting better sleep

There are a number of steps you can take to improve the quality of your sleep, from tweaking your nighttime routine to starting your day with sunlight.

  1. Keep a consistent bedtime and stick to it: Holliday-Bell recommends heading to bed within the same one-hour time frame each night, which helps reinforce your circadian rhythm (and makes it easier to fall asleep). Robbins also says you should avoid getting into bed until your bedtime. "If we spend time lounging around in bed, it tells our brain that other things than sleep happen in bed, which can increase our risk for insomnia," she added.
  2. Soak up sunlight and fresh air throughout the day: Both Robbins and Holliday-Bell say that exposing yourself to sunlight by opening the blinds in your room or taking walks can help reinforce your circadian rhythm. "Sunlight helps you to naturally feel more awake and alert," Holliday-Bell said. "It helps to further set or reinforce your circadian rhythm by suppressing melatonin release while increasing cortisol, causing the natural alertness that occurs in the morning hours."
  3. Avoid alcohol and caffeine within hours of bedtime: Due to caffeine having a half-life of about six hours, Holliday-Bell says you should avoid consuming it after noon. Even after 12 hours, one-quarter of the caffeine is still in your system, she said. When it comes to alcohol, Holliday-Bell recommends you don't consume it within 3-4 hours of your bedtime. While the idea of a night cap might sound beneficial, Holliday-Bell says once your body processes the alcohol "it actually creates a paradoxical alerting effect that leads to middle of the night and/or early morning awakenings, causing your sleep to be more fragmented."
  4. Exercise during the day: Holliday-Bell says regular exercise can help to not only improve your mood and reduce stress, but also help you sleep. "Research has shown that those who engage in regular physical activity get more slow-wave or deep sleep at night," she said.
  5. Create an optimal setup for sleep: Curating a space that is designed with soothing tones and devoid of "stressful" items such as computers can help you get a good night's sleep, according to Robbins. "Make sure you are sleeping on a supportive mattress and pillow," she added. "These elements do need to be refreshed to ensure your head, neck and spinal column are aligned."

Below, we rounded up bestselling and expert-recommended finds that can help prepare you for a good night's sleep.

Picks for better sleep

Bose Sleepbuds II

If you're a light sleeper living in a city or any other environment where it tends to be noisy at night, try out these highly-rated sleepbuds. They're easy to use and work with the Bose Sleep app so you can listen to more than 50 relaxing sounds as you fall asleep, and get a full night's rest with their noise-masking technology. A single charge lasts up to ten hours, and the case holds three additional charges.

ZZZhen 15-Pound Weighted Blanket

Weighted blankets have long been hailed for their calming effects. Holliday-Bell says they are a great addition to a sleep routine, thanks to their deep pressure stimulation therapy. "Deep pressure stimulation also helps to decrease the release of the stress hormone cortisol and allows for more release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin," she said.

Ocushield Anti Blue Light Glasses

Shop TODAY editors have been leaning on blue light glasses to help reduce eye strain since the start of the pandemic, but Holliday-Bell says the frames can also help boost the release of melatonin in your body. "The blue wavelength of light is the strongest inhibitor of melatonin release," she explained. "Because of this, I recommend utilizing blue light filtering glasses starting two hours before bedtime."

Casper The Glow Light

We're exposed to lots of artificial light during the day, so it only makes sense that we try and limit that exposure at night. This self-dimming, warm light from Casper helps you fall into a deeper sleep and wakes you up gently in the morning. You can also use it with the app to customize all the different settings.

Hatch Restore Smart Sleep Assistant

Holliday-Bell recommends another wake-up option for a similar reason — it can gently wake you out of your sleep. "The gradual nature of waking with a sunrise alarm helps to prevent that disoriented feeling you get when startled awake by a traditional alarm," she told us.This bestselling sunrise alarm clock is another option one Shop TODAY associate editor loved.

Tempur-Pedic Tempur Supreme 3-Inch Mattress Topper

This Real Simple sleep award winner might be a good pick for anyone who wants to upgrade their mattress without splurging on a new one. It's made from three inches of memory foam that adapts to your weight and helps to relieve pressure.

Beckham Hotel Collection Bed Pillows

Robbins says a supportive pillow can also make for a better night's sleep. These down alternative-filled options are the bestselling bed pillows on Amazon right now, with over 115,000 verified five-star ratings from shoppers. According to the brand, it's a good pick for side sleepers.

Bala Bangles (Set of 2)

Not ready to jump into cardio but still want to incorporate some exercise into your day? These popular ankle weights can add some intensity to any workout, whether you're doing Pilates or yoga.

HoMedics White Noise Sound Machine

This No. 1 bestselling sound machine features six soothing sounds, including Thunder Ocean and Summer Night, to help you fall asleep. It can be set to automatically shut off after 15, 30 or 60 minutes, so you can drift off to sleep without worrying about it running all night.

Mzoo Contoured Sleep Eye Mask

Easily block out light while you're attempting to fall asleep with a plush eye mask. This style features contoured cups to alleviate pressure on your eyes and memory foam for added comfort.

Book of the Month Subscription

According to Robbins, avoiding stress-inducing gadgets at night can help you fall asleep. Cuddling up with a good book is one screen-free way to wind down. Not sure what to read? Book of the Month can help, offering five different titles each month and delivering your choice right to your doorstep.

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