Midlife checklist – 9 ways to improve sleep and mental health

Sleep patterns are known to change across the lifespan in various ways, including decreases in quantity and quality of sleep, with up to 50% of older adults report difficulties initiating and/or maintaining sleep. Research also shows there’s a close relationship between sleep and mental health. The good news is there are many things you can do to help yourself.

Relax! Midlife is a challenging time for the mind and it is essential to find ways to switch off, says Dr Gray, author of Midlife: Look Younger, Live Longer, Feel Better. Take a couple of minutes to notice your breathing five times a day and every evening do something that takes your mind off work and the stresses of your life: a long bath, reading a novel, gardening or yoga.

Get out – Research by the University of Michigan suggests that taking walks in nature is associated with a whole host of mental health benefits, including decreased depression, improved wellbeing and mental health and lower stress levels.

Stand up at your desk –  If you stand for eight minutes of every half an hour you are at work, and move around for at least two minutes, you can experience lower levels of blood sugar and cholesterol, reduced weight and improved concentration, according to a study by Cornell University.

Form habits – Our bodies thrive on regularity, according to Dr Agus, a leading cancer specialist. Try to get up and go to bed at roughly the same time each day and eat at regular intervals for improved mental and physical health.

Sleep cool, dark and quiet –  Studies show that those who live near an airport live shorter lives. “The brain needs quiet while it is resting,” says Dr Agus, who recommends investing in black-out blinds and ear plugs. It is essential to focus on getting quality sleep as it has a long-term impact on our physical and mental health as well as our weight and disorders associated with cardiac function and diabetes, agrees sleep specialist Prof Jason Ellis. “As we age we become more susceptible to night-time wake-ups, so we need to work at creating a calm environment that maximises your chance of a good night’s sleep,” he says.

No screens before bed – Stop staring at your laptop or phone an hour before you want to sleep – studies have shown that exposure to the blue-and-white light given off by these gadgets prevents our brains from releasing melatonin, a hormone that tells our bodies it’s night-time. If, like Dr Agus, you are not prepared to give up the screen, invest in a pair of “geek” glasses, designed for gamers, with lenses that filter the wavelengths that the brain confuses with sunlight.

No gorging after 9pm – Prof Ellis suggests limiting the amount of food and drink we consume in the hours before bedtime to improve the quality of our sleep. “Don’t down a pint of water before bed; sip water throughout the evening and eat earlier in the evening,” he says. “If the body is trying to digest and sleep at the same time, as you get older, digestion wins and you wake up.”

Invest in good quality bedding – Your mattress doesn’t have to cost a fortune, but it must be comfortable to encourage deep sleep, Prof Ellis says, and the same goes for your sheets and duvet. While he doesn’t recommend sleeping in separate beds from your partner, he does suggest investing in separate duvets to minimise disturbance. “This way you customise the tog and filling,” he says. “Don’t settle for two single duvets, though; go for two doubles so you never feel short changed.”

Conquer your snoring –  Snoring is one of the major obstacles to a good night’s sleep and tends to get louder and more problematic with age. Dr Ellis recommends snorers consider a mandibular advancement device, an inexpensive gum-shield-style contraption, which holds the lower jaw and tongue slightly forward to make more space for breathing and is proven to prevent snoring and mild to moderate sleep apnoea.


D’Ambrosio C ,  Impact of Sleep and Sleep Disturbances on Obesity and Cancer. Redline S, Berger NA, editors. New York, NY: Springer New York, 2014.

Crowley K , Sleep and sleep disorders in older adults. Neuropsychol Rev 2011;21:41–53.doi:10.1007/s11065-010-9154-6