We may be retired but apparently we’re ahead of the curve. Not a sentence I would expect to write very often, if at all. In one sense it’s to do with the time we go to bed and normally we’re rather embarrassed to tell people what that time is. No amount of backing up this information up with a rationale – mainly we go to bed and read, it’s more peaceful in our own room especially as number one son currently resides with us, makes us feel any less awkward about this confession. It’s that old saying of my grandma’s when I was an indolent teenager, about ‘sleeping your life away.’ Or even the explanation that we get up early, Mrs Summerhouse at 5.30 (as she always has) and me at 6.30 as I always did when I was working. This early rising may be something to do with walking the pups (our work substitute) at eight o’clock. So from lights-out to the alarm even Mrs SH gets 8 hours ‘sleep’ and you will understand shortly why I put the word in inverted commas.
For as long as I can remember and that’s admittedly not very long these days, we have been told that, as we get older, we need less sleep. This alongside stories of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan only needing four hours sleep each night, which is ironic in the light of what is to follow. So quite a lot of guilt about our sleeping patterns. But now, as I’ve written above, it seems we have been doing it right all along. This bold statement is based on an interesting and rather scary article about a normally comforting aspect of our lives – sleeping. Another article (after the best seller one) from the weekend papers entitled ‘Sleep should be prescribed’ reports on the work of Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist, and what he describes as ‘a catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic’. Sounds worrying and indeed so it is.
The message of the article was unambiguous – sleep longer, live longer. Or, skimp on your sleep and you’ll die younger. Or, at a more cheerful level, sleep deprivation, Walker’s research shows, is linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart attack, Alzheimer’s (Thatcher and Reagan take note), diabetes, obesity and poor mental health. I’d say that just about covers most of the health issues we worry about. In case it doesn’t the article says, ‘adults aged 45 years or older (hate that bit) who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those sleeping 7 or 8 hours a night’. Now I’m no scientist but that doesn’t sound good.
The reason for all this doom and gloom? Apparently we are sleeping less these days because of increased lighting at night time I.e. not enough gloom), longer commuting times (people who don’t get home until late are choosing time with family rather than sleep) and the fact that as ‘we’re a lonelier, more depressed society’ we use alcohol and caffeine more and ‘all of these are the enemies of sleep’. Oh, and as if we didn’t know it already, sleeping pills are no good. So what to do?
I have to tell you, at this point, that the article is very light on what we can do to make sure we get eight hours quality sleep (and it was a very long article with quite a lot of padding I thought intended to disguise the fact that there were no answers, at least that’s how it came across to me) and here, it seems to me, lies the catch and the reason I put the word ‘sleep’ in inverted commas. While we might close our eyes and try to go to sleep at 9 and, if we are lucky, wake up at 5.30 / 6.30, there is absolutely no guarantee that we will be asleep between these times. What with one thing and another I cannot remember the last time that either of us slept through the night, to quote that charming old phrase. Oh and power naps, which we are rather good at, are no help either because something, something doesn’t happen until you’ve been asleep for 90 minutes. No comfort there then. So whilst the science behind Walker’s research sounds, to this layman, quite convincing, the remedies are unfortunately not described in the article. In fact the impression is that there aren’t any, not even the legendary hot bath and camomile tea.
We’ve always tried to take our sleep, or rather lack of it, seriously. I’ve written at least two blogs about sleep problems in the past and the strategies I’ve tried to employ to combat our sleeplessness, on one hand, and find our ‘happy places’ to sooth our troubled minds, on the other, but nothing we do can guarantee 8 unbroken hours sleep each night. Mrs Summerhouse has been known to get up and do her yoga in the middle of the night. She says this definitely helps but she has to be awake to do it. She reminded me that in our younger days we used to sing our way through a whole Beatles album, but don’t tell anybody that because it sounds a bit weird. Our search goes on but if the conclusions are right we might not have much longer to find the answer/s.
It’s ironic that I read this article on the Sunday after a night of pure torment. Not mental this time but physical. I was awake and in agony from about 2 o’clock onwards because of a stabbing pain in my right foot on the top of it to be precise. It was a sharp pain as if somebody was sticking a red-hot screwdriver into it. Yes, it was that painful. So after this lack of sleep imagine my amusement to wake up and read I needed eight hours every night. Laugh, I nearly went to Bradford. I suppose all I could say, on a positive note, was that at least the pain stopped any indulgence in mental anguish. Then again for most of the 4 or 5 hours of agony I would have happily exchanged the pain for my more usual psychological restlessness and consequent lack of sleep. I must remember to be more grateful next time I am awake in the middle of the night as a result of over-thinking, it beats stabbing pains.
In the meantime we will continue, throughout our retirement years, to attempt to achieve our eight hours but not to worry if we don’t because that would be self-defeating. Being retired is a tricky business even when you’re (supposed to be) asleep.