The Effects Of Aging On Sleep

Written by
Purple Staff
Last Updated
July 12, 2022
|
9
min read

America’s population is getting older. In 2016, around 15% of Americans were over the age of 65. This number is expected to grow to 21% by 2040. 

Normal aging involves many health and lifestyle changes, but one that most people don’t anticipate is the change in their quality of sleep. Age-related sleep problems are very common and can lead to poor physical and mental health if not properly managed. 

This guide will help you understand how aging can change your sleep patterns and give you tips on how to maintain your quality of sleep as you grow older.

Why Does Aging Affect Sleep?

There are various factors that can link aging with sleep complaints. The usual causes are the following:

Health Conditions

Our bodies acquire wear and tear over time, which can result in poor health as you grow older. A poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation in 2003 found that 24% of people between the ages of 65 and 84 reported being diagnosed with at least four out of 11 common health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Studies have linked medical conditions with getting fewer hours of sleep per night, as well as sleep difficulties such as daytime sleepiness and chronic insomnia. Chronic joint and muscle pain – on top of other conditions associated with aging such as rheumatism and arthritis – make it more difficult to fall and stay asleep. 

Multiple comorbidities have significantly more adverse effects on the sleep-wake cycle than having any single particular condition. To make it worse, poor sleep habits also increase the risk of developing serious health problems, creating a vicious cycle of deteriorating sleep quality and health.

Medications

In connection with health deteriorating over time, older adults have to take more medication on average to treat their health conditions compared to other age groups. Nearly 40% of adults older than 65 take at least five medications. 

Many prescription and over-the-counter medicines have side effects that can affect your sleep pattern:

  • Non-drowsy antihistamines can have stimulative effects and cause jitteriness, leading to poor sleep. 
  • Some drugs for Alzheimer’s treatment increase brain chemicals related to memory and alertness but can also cause symptoms of insomnia. 
  • Certain antidepressants can increase Restless Leg Syndrome and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, which disrupt the sleep cycle.

Taking multiple drugs can also have unexpected results, as the interaction of the medications may alter how the body is affected by one or both of the drugs.

Lifestyle 

Growing older can lead to significant lifestyle changes, which in turn affect your sleep schedule. Retired older adults may have more free time, which can lead to daytime sleepiness and fragmented sleep cycles. They may also experience anxiety and stress over various life events, such as the loss of loved ones or worsening physical and mental health, which can also increase sleep disturbances.

Habits

Older adults may have poor sleep habits that negatively affect their quality of sleep, such as napping during the day, smoking, using gadgets at night, and consuming caffeine before bedtime.

Aside from having poor sleep habits that can affect their sleep at night, older adults may also fail to practice good habits that improve sleep time. Maintaining adequate daily activity levels, improving your sleep environment, eating a healthy diet, and practicing relaxing bedroom routines will help improve quality sleep.

How Does Aging Affect Sleep?

Biological aging generally results in decreased sleep. Here are several factors that contribute to less sleep in older adults:

Modified Sleep Architecture

Studies show that rapid deep sleep, also referred to as slow-wave, decreases with age. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep also decreases. 

Decreased slow-wave and REM stages of sleep could make you more prone to nighttime awakenings and disturbed sleep. Older adults have a harder time falling back asleep, resulting in less overall sleep time.

Changing Hours Of Sleep

As we age, our circadian rhythms – and, thus, our sleep-wake cycles – change. Growing older typically causes a phase advance in our internal clocks, which could make you feel more tired, sleep earlier at night, and wake up earlier in the day.

Lower Melatonin Levels

Melatonin, often referred to as the “sleep hormone”, is a hormone naturally produced by our bodies that helps regulate sleep cycles. Research shows that melatonin levels decline with age, which connects to the changes in the body’s circadian rhythms over time.

Fragmented Sleep

An estimated 25% of older adults take naps, which is significantly higher than the approximate 8% of younger adults who do so. Long and frequent napping, especially when done late in the day, can make it harder to sleep at night.

Do Older People Need Less Sleep?

It’s a common belief that older adults don’t need to sleep as much as their younger counterparts. However, the National Institute on Aging has debunked this myth. Studies show that, on average, an individual requires the same number of hours of sleep from young adulthood to senior. 

However, while older people usually don’t need less sleep, they’re much more likely to get less sleep due to sleeping difficulties associated with aging. Getting the right amount of sleep is important for your physical and mental health – being under or over-rested are both detrimental to your wellbeing.

How Much Sleep Do Older Adults Need?

The amount of sleep you need varies from person to person, but there are average ranges recommended for certain demographics.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that 7 to 8 hours is the appropriate sleep duration for healthy older adults with normal sleep needs. However, for individuals suffering from sleep disorders, these guidelines may not be appropriate.

Common Sleep Issues In Seniors

Studies have found that approximately 40-70% of older adults suffer from chronic sleep issues, with up to half of these cases possibly going undiagnosed. Here are some of the most common sleep disorders experienced by the elderly:

Insomnia

As many as 50% of older adults have reported difficulties falling and staying asleep. Insomnia may be caused by physical comorbidities, mental conditions, or stressful events. 

Common types of insomnia include:

  • Sleep onset insomnia: Difficulty falling asleep whenever the person attempts to initiate sleep
  • Sleep maintenance insomnia: Inability to stay asleep through the night, resulting in less restful sleep. Older adults get fewer hours of deep sleep compared to their younger counterparts.
  • Early morning awakening insomnia: Waking up much earlier than intended and being unable to fall back asleep. Aging is linked with increasingly fragmented sleep.

Daytime Sleepiness

Changes in the body’s circadian rhythm over time adjust the body clock and lead to getting tired earlier. However, excessive daytime sleepiness and irregular sleep-wake times may indicate an underlying health condition, such as depression, cardiovascular disease, or even cancer. 

Body Pain

People who suffer from chronic pain experience more fragmented sleep and get fewer hours of sleep per night. Older adults are more prone to suffer from conditions that cause body discomfort, like rheumatism and arthritis.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless Legs Syndrome, also known as Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, is a condition that causes an intense and often uncontrollable impulse to move the legs during sleep or other resting states. It tends to make the individual feel discomfort that can be temporarily relieved by moving their legs. While Restless Legs Syndrome can manifest at any age, it is more common in older demographics.

Sleep Apnea

This is a condition where breathing is interrupted during sleep. Some of sleep apnea’s most common symptoms are loud snoring (which can cause sleep problems for your bed partner), gasping for breath during sleep, and awakening with a dry mouth. 

There are three main kinds of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea happens when the throat muscles or tongue relax, obstructing airflow.
  • Central sleep apnea is caused by the brain’s failure to send signals to the muscles that control breathing.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome combines both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

3 Sleep Tips For Seniors

There are a few tips and tricks that can help you combat the negative effects of normal aging on your sleep and maintain an adequate quality of sleep later in life. Here are three that you can implement now:

Keep A Regular Bedtime Routine

Developing and maintaining a fixed pre-sleep daily routine can make it easier to fall and stay asleep. 

It’s best to avoid strong stimuli when it's near the hours of sleep. Instead, do activities that help you unwind, like taking a leisurely bath, getting a massage, or doing some light reading. 

Try not to spend too much time in bed when you aren’t sleeping. Keep track of your habits, energy levels, and sleep patterns in a sleep diary to see which activities help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

Do Relaxing Exercises 

Stress and anxiety are closely linked to insufficient sleep. Thankfully, some relaxation exercises can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, calm your mind, and help reduce other symptoms of stress. Yoga, taichi, meditation, or even just doing breathing exercises can relax you and improve your quality of sleep.

Eat A Healthy Diet

What you eat can disrupt your sleep time. Studies show that poor sleep quality is connected with higher overall levels of eating, worse quality of diets, and higher rates of obesity. Eating a nutrient-rich diet gives the brain the necessary fuel it needs to produce the neurotransmitters involved in getting quality sleep.

Consuming less fiber, more saturated fat, and more sugar throughout the day is linked with lighter and more fragmented sleep. Avoid caffeine-rich foods, heavy meals, and spicy or fatty dishes as you get closer to bedtime. 

There are also foods that help you sleep better, like bananas, spinach, and hummus. A light snack can also help you avoid going to bed hungry and improve your regularity of sleep.

Frequently Asked Questions About Aging And Sleep

How can I help my elderly sleep through the night?

You can help your elderly loved ones sleep through the night by having them keep a consistent bedtime routine, practice relaxation exercises, and consume a healthy diet.

At what age does sleep decline?

Total sleep time generally decreases over your entire lifespan, but people over 60 years of age report higher levels of deteriorated sleep quality.

Why do old people sleep less?

While older people don’t need less sleep, they often get less sleep time because of increased susceptibility to sleep complaints such as insomnia.