Sleep is a basic and fundamental aspect of human health and wellbeing, affecting everything from cognitive function to mood to overall physical health. As we age, however, our sleep patterns and habits can change in many ways. For many, aging can mean changes in how well and how long we sleep, which can impact our overall health and wellbeing.
There are a few stages involved in the sleep cycle. The first stages are dreamless periods of light and deep sleep, and then you move into some periods of active dreaming (known as REM sleep – not to be confused with the 90s rock band). We repeat these stages several times throughout the night. Of course, as you get older your sleep patterns change. It’s harder to fall asleep and you wake up more often during the night or earlier in the morning.
Not the REM we’re talking about… This is REM the 90s rock band.
The transition between sleeping and waking up is also quite abrupt, making older people feel like they are lighter sleepers than when they were younger. On average, older people wake up a few times per night and are more aware of being awake. This is because they tend to spend less time in deep sleep. Other reasons for waking up at night include needing to use the bathroom (nocturia), anxiety, discomfort or pain from long-term illnesses.
The Progression of Sleep as You Age
A 2017 study published in the Sleep Medicine Clinics reviewed sleep in normal aging and found that as you get older, your sleeping patterns tend to change, even if you're otherwise healthy. This includes things like going to bed earlier, sleeping for shorter periods, taking more daytime naps, and waking up more during the night. Unfortunately, older folks also tend to have less deep sleep, which makes things like falling asleep and staying asleep more challenging.
Most of these changes happen between young adulthood and middle age, but even healthy older adults can have trouble sleeping. Plus, the way your body regulates sleep hormones and your circadian rhythms can get less effective with age, too. Even so, many healthy seniors don't experience too many problems with sleeping.
If you're an older adult and having trouble sleeping, there could be a few different reasons why. It could be due to a health condition, a mental health problem, or even just changes in your daily routine. Whatever the cause, it's important to get enough sleep, especially since poor sleep can lead to other health problems and reduce your quality of life
How Does Getting Older Affect Your Sleep?
There are four main ways in which our sleep can be affected by our age.
We take more daytime naps
About 25% of older adults take naps, which is significantly more than the 8% of younger adults who nap, according to research. Some experts recommend a brief daytime nap, but many agree that prolonged napping and napping in the later part of the day can interfere with falling asleep at night and cause disruptions in nighttime sleep.
We wake up more often at night
Researchers have found that changes in the pattern of how you cycle through different sleep stages occur as people age. And seniors usually spend more time in lighter stages of sleep and less time in deeper stages, which causes less restful sleep because they are continually waking up. As a result, they may wake up more often during the night.
Our sleep schedule slowly changes
As we get older, our body's internal clock (you might have heard it called your circadian rhythm) shifts forward in time, causing what's known as a phase advance. This can make older adults feel tired earlier in the afternoon and wake up earlier in the morning.
It takes us longer to recover from changes in our sleep schedule
Changes in the regulation of the circadian rhythm can make it harder for older individuals to adapt to rapid changes in their sleep patterns, such as during daylight saving time or while traveling abroad, resulting in difficulties in sleeping.
Common Sleep Problems as You Age
Not getting enough sleep regularly can really affect your day-to-day life and make things feel pretty crappy (amiright?). If this is you, you’re not alone. And according to researchers, as many as 40% to 70% of older adults are thought to have long-term sleep problems, with almost half of cases not even diagnosed.
Feeling tired during the day is NOT part of getting older. Actually, only about 20% of seniors experience daytime sleepiness. This can be a symptom of a deeper problem, such as sleep apnea, problems with your memory or even your heart. If that’s the case, it’s important to see your family doctor for advice.
One of the most common sleep problems for seniors is having a tough time falling or staying asleep. Insomnia can be caused by a few different things and can be really frustrating to experience.
Raise your hand if you have to wake up a few times a night just to go to the bathroom. This is called nocturia and is more common than you think. Up to 80% of older adults might have to deal with this issue, which can make it tough to get a good night's sleep.
Some older adults might not get enough rest because they feel uncomfortable or have pain. Unfortunately, not getting enough sleep can sometimes make the pain even worse, which can then make it harder to sleep - it's a pretty nasty cycle. That's why it's important to chat with a doctor if you're experiencing pain that's keeping you from getting a good night's rest.
4 Dos and 4 Don’ts to Get Better Sleep (No Matter Your Age)
- Exercise is always recommended no matter your age, keep the last three hours before bed for relaxation instead.
- Bedtime snacks can encourage rest, such as warm milk or chamomile (decaf) tea.
- Your bed should only be used for sleep (and sex).
- Speak with your family doctor to see if any of your medications could be affecting your sleep.
- Don’t take naps during the day, if you can.
- Don’t watch TV or use your computer/smartphone when you’re in bed.
- Don’t take stimulants like caffeine for at least three or four hours before bed. Caffeine can be a sneaky substance and lurks in some teas, colas, and even chocolate.
- Don’t smoke (tobacco) before you go to bed.
So, How Much Sleep SHOULD You Get?
The National Sleep Foundation published a sleep duration recommendations report for nine different age groups, based on other research they collected.
|Newborn (0-3 months)||14-17 hours|
|Infant (4-12 months)||
12-16 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
|Toddler (1-2 years)||11-14 hours per 24 hours (including naps)|
|Preschool (3-5 years)||10-13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)|
|School age (6-12 years)||9-12 hours per 24 hours|
|Teen (13-18 years)||8-10 hours per 24 hours|
|Adult (18-60 years)||7+ hours per night|
|Older adult (61-64 years)||7-9 hours|
|Senior (65+ years)||7-8 hours|
Understanding how sleep changes as we age is essential to promote better health and wellbeing in our later years. With age, changes in our sleep patterns can impact not only our energy levels but also our overall physical and mental health.
It’s important to recognize the factors that can affect sleep in later life, including circadian rhythm alterations, medical conditions, and sleep disorders. By staying aware of these changes, older adults can make informed decisions about their sleep habits and take steps to address any sleep-related issues. Improving sleep quality and duration is essential to living your best life.
NOTE: While the content on the Riversol blog aims to inform, it is not intended to replace medical advice or the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional. If you suspect that you are experiencing a sleep disorder or any other medical condition, please contact your family doctor.