I’ve never been a good sleeper. As a kid, I remember reading for hours by the hall light while my sister slept.

All-nighters were common in college – sometimes for study, sometimes for marathon Rummy with my roomie. During my early career, I’d often skip sleep to meet deadlines or just stay out too late having fun.

My habits didn’t improve with age. By 60, I relied on innocent over-the-counter sleep aids to scrape out five hours of uninterrupted sleep. Often as not, I’d be awake in the dark staring at the TV or my iPad. I tried melatonin, but it made me feel groggy the next day.

Lucky (or not) for me, we live in a house big enough I can get up and roam around. My sweetie pie’s sleep habits have always been better than mine. He is a “bedroom is only for sleep and sex” kind of guy.

But at 70, he went from straight eight-hour nights to more fragmented sleep like me. He finally felt my pain. Seeing him on a tired morning was a looking glass into my future. If I can’t get a grip on my sleep in my 60s, what about my 70s, 80s and 90s? How will I complete my 100th Year Project?

Why Shut Eye Is So Critical

Science has proven that lousy sleep shortens life. Less than six or seven hours a night wrecks immunity and doubles our risk of cancer.

Sleep quality is a key determinant in developing Alzheimer’s disease and can fuel cardiovascular problems leading to stroke or heart failure. Plus, the link between obesity and lack of sleep is well documented.

The list goes on and on. But there’s good news. Perhaps even more than with diet and exercise, sleep is where we can add years to our quality of life. Every process in our body and our brain is improved with better sleep.

Just as our bodies have a built-in waste management plant, so do our brains. It’s called the glymphatic system. One of our brain’s main waste products is amyloid beta, a protein found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. We want that gunk out of there!

In his book The Sleep Solution, sleep doctor Chris Winter points to research that proves our glymphatic system does a 60 percent better job of cleaning up when we’re sleeping than when we’re awake. If that isn’t a good reason to say “nighty-night,” I don’t know what is.

Another fun fact: researchers studying the glymphatic system of rodents found it worked more efficiently when they laid the little furry guys to sleep on their sides. For years, I’ve tried to sleep on my back because my face and chest seem less wrinkled in the morning.

Dr. Winter says, “One behavioral change you can implement right now that could reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is to simply sleep on your side.” I’ll take the extra wrinkles on my face and my décolletage.

My Personal Path to Better Rest

The first thing I did was quit those innocent looking sleep aids. The drug store varieties are just as problematic as the ones doctors overprescribe.

Besides leading to all kinds of cognitive disorders and increasing the risk of a fall, they just quit working for me. Let’s face it: sleeping aids and the sedation they offer is not good sleep.

Then I started tracking my sleep. I treated myself to a new Fitbit which divides up my night by awake, light, deep and REM sleep. It’s more accurate than I ever imagined. Besides confirming I slept less than six hours most nights, I learned I wasn’t getting nearly enough deep sleep or enough dream sleep.

I’ve never had a problem falling asleep, so I started getting ready for bed an hour earlier. This gives me an extra dose of the restorative deep sleep that happens mostly in the first half of our nights. This is when our brain starts scrubbing up and syncing our hormonal balance.

Getting up to go to the bathroom and falling back to sleep is my problem. While I’ve learned not to stress if I lay awake for longer stretches some nights, I usually get up if I can’t fall back to sleep within the hour.

I’ve quit turning on the TV or reading on my iPad. Note to self: reading library books about sleep makes me very sleepy.

Most of our best dream or REM sleep happens in the second half of our nights. In his book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker, Ph.D. stresses the importance of dreaming.

He says, “Aside from being a stoic sentinel that guards your sanity and emotional well-being, REM sleep and the act of dreaming have another distinct benefit: intelligent information processing that inspires creativity and promotes problem solving.”

Now, instead of telling myself it’s okay to get up if the clock hits 4 a.m., I try hard to get one more hour of morning sleep. I almost always wake up remembering my dreams. What an adventure!

I’m working on my sleep stage as well. Experts say to make our bedrooms cool and very dark, but I don’t like the dark. I have turned off all but one nightlight and usually wear a sleep mask.

Locking pets out of the bedroom is highly recommended. But dozing with my cats is relaxing to me. So I’m not following all the rules. But for the past four months, I’m averaging 7.5 hours of sleep per night. I look and feel rested, and people notice.

The Art of the Nap

While we can’t recapture lost sleep, napping can make us feel better. A nap early in the day tends to add to the sleep from the night before. But a nap late in the day can steal from the sleep you’ve got coming up tonight.

Since my afternoons are mine to schedule, I have the luxury of napping if I want to. If I’m really tired, I could easily nap for a couple hours. But I know it’s going to make me groggy for the rest of the afternoon and will probably interfere with my sleep.

So I put on my face mask, a cat nuzzles in, and I set my timer for 25 minutes. If I nap, great. If not, that’s okay too because I’m resting which is still good for me. Some sleep gurus call this kind of short nap a “sleep snack.” At my house, it’s a cat nap – because the cat always does.

Another gimmicky kind of nap is the “nappuccino,” and I confess I’m experimenting on afternoons when I have a full plate. A cup of coffee takes about 20 minutes to kick in. So I enjoy a cup o’ joe after lunch, lay down for a 25-minute nap and wake up ready to rock.

Science is disproving the myth that we need less sleep as we age. If we want to age well, we need a quality smorgasbord of all the sleep cycles.

With practice and commitment, my own sleep is much improved. This morning, when I announced, “Honey, I slept a straight eight,” he answered “No way,” as if he didn’t believe me. But he was grinning, so I know he’s proud of me. Now I’m going to work on him.

How can you improve your sleeping habits? Do you feel rested in the morning, or could you lay down and take a nap a couple hours later? What can you do to make your sleeping room more comfortable? Please share your thoughts and tips for all to benefit.

Terri Edmund WhiteTerri Edmund White is an innkeeper on Anna Maria Island, Florida. She enjoys life with her husband Jim and their cats, adopted from the Humane Society of Manatee County. A former corporate writer and editor, Terri is currently penning her way to her 100th birthday and has started a 100 Year Project website to write about the journey.

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