Aging and Sleep - Featured

Aging and Sleep: How Sleep Changes as We Get Older

by Mira Rakicevic

The aging process entails a number of changes that affect both our body and mind. And sleep is no exception. As people get older, they tend to have more sleep problems than when they were younger. The elderly usually have trouble falling asleep and wake up more often during the night.

So what are the most common sleep problems that come with age? Why do they occur? And what kind of effects do they have on our health?

Keep on reading to find out. We’ll try to cover the topic of aging and sleep in great detail. But first, let’s see why sleep is so important.

The Benefits of a Good Night’s Rest

A night of restful sleep is vital for our mental and physical health. Although we usually tend to take it for granted, both our quantity and quality of sleep greatly impact our quality of life. It keeps us healthy, boosts our immune system, improves our heart health, and prevents cancer. But that’s not all. It also enhances our memory and learning capacities. Unfortunately, the way our sleep changes with age can result in a number of negative consequences.

It’s a well-known fact that a lack of sleep can have numerous adverse effects on our wellbeing. People with sleep problems are at a higher risk of chronic illness. Some studies found that sleep deprivation is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In addition, when you don’t get enough sleep, you’re less productive and have difficulty concentrating. Feeling sleepy during the day can make you anxious and nervous. As you can see, a change in one’s sleep pattern causes numerous problems affecting your normal daytime functions.

Even if you sleep the recommended 7–9 hours a night, you may wake up feeling unrested.

This is because in order to feel refreshed and energized in the morning, you need to get quality sleep. Let me try to explain this. When we doze off, we go through several different stages of sleep. Unless we spend enough time in the “deep sleep” stage, our body and mind don’t have an opportunity to fully recover.

How Much Sleep Do You Need by Age?

Aging and Sleep - Sleep Needs

Most people assume that seniors need less sleep than younger adults. However, that’s not true. Throughout our adulthood, we need a similar amount of sleep. Nevertheless, older people tend to sleep less than the recommended 7–9 hours. Insomnia statistics support this claim, showing that 44% of the elderly experience insomnia symptoms at least a few times a week. Below you can see the current recommendations provided by the National Sleep Foundation regarding the adequate sleep duration based on age. Here you can find the answer to “How much sleep does a 70-year-old need?” and similar questions.

AgeSleep Duration
Newborns (0–3 months)14–17 hours
Infants (4–11 months)12–15 hours
Toddlers (1–2 years)11–14 hours
Preschoolers (3–5 years)10–13 hours
School-age children (6–13 years)9–11 hours
Teenagers (14–17 years)8–10 hours
Young adults (18–25 years)7–9 hours
Adults (26–65 years)7–9 hours
Older adults (65+)7–8 hours

As you can see, newborns need more sleep than the rest of us and this sleep duration gradually decreases with age. However, after their teens, most people need between 7 and 9 hours to function at their best.

How Your Sleep Can Change with Age

When studying the relationship between sleep and aging, we notice that sleep patterns usually change with age. Older people tend to have trouble falling asleep and also usually wake up earlier in the morning. As a result, the time they spend asleep decreases slightly.

In addition, most seniors are light sleepers who frequently wake up during the night. One of the reasons they easily wake up is that they spend less time in the “deep sleep” stage. Since their nighttime rest is often disrupted, the elderly don’t always get all the health benefits that a sound restorative night’s sleep can provide.

Along with changes in their sleep patterns, the elderly suffer from sleep disorders as well. As we already mentioned, many of them experience insomnia symptoms on a regular basis. Moreover, some sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, are more prevalent among older people.

How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Wellbeing

Since most people start experiencing sleep difficulties as they get older, they usually don’t get enough quality sleep. Not only do they tend to sleep less, but their night’s rest isn’t as restorative as it should be. Therefore, even seniors who get enough hours of sleep at night might feel sleepy during the day. That’s why we’ll briefly talk about the consequences of lack of sleep in the elderly, which generally don’t differ much from the typical effects of sleep deprivation.

They can include the following:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Reduced productivity and an inability to concentrate
  • Memory problems
  • Increased risk of depression
  • An impaired immune system that can lead to frequent infections
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain cancers
  • Weight gain

These are just some of the adverse effects of sleep deprivation on our health. As you can see, aging and sleep problems can lead to much more serious issues than just feeling sluggish during the day.

Causes of Sleep Problems

Aging and Sleep - Changes

There are several reasons you might experience sleep problems as you get older. Some are typical for one’s age and health, and others can be the result of lifestyle changes.

Common Causes

  • Poor sleep hygiene – If you don’t have healthy sleep habits, you may disrupt your circadian rhythm, also known as the body’s internal clock. We’ll mention a few tips for improving your sleep hygiene below, or you can check out this interesting infographic and the article that follows it to find out more about healthy sleep habits.
  • Sleep disorders – Another reason the elderly can’t sleep at night is that they often suffer from some kind of sleep disorder. Certain sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and insomnia, are more prevalent among older people. In addition to affecting your sleep, these disorders might lead to serious medical conditions.
  • Chronic illnesses – It’s a well-known fact that our health deteriorates with age. A number of medical conditions that affect older people, such as heart failure, arthritis, and heartburn, can have a negative effect on sleep quality. Some of the common sleep problems in elderly patients with dementia include excessive daytime sleepiness and nighttime wandering.
  • Medications – Certain medicines can negatively affect your sleep quality. They may keep you awake when you want to sleep or cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.

Life Changes

  • Stressful situations – Certain life events usually associated with old age can cause a lot of stress and sleepless nights. For example, financial problems, the death of a loved one, or moving to a nursing home can all lead to a sudden change in sleep patterns.
  • Retirement – Retirement represents a huge change in your lifestyle since all of a sudden you don’t have as many responsibilities during the day as you used to have. As a result, you might not feel as tired at bedtime, so you may have trouble falling asleep. Also, without a strict schedule to follow, you may start going to bed at different times, which can negatively affect your circadian rhythm.

Signs You Need More Quality Sleep

If you sleep less than when you were younger but still wake up rested in the morning, it’s possible you now need less nighttime rest. However, when it comes to aging and sleep deprivation, you should pay attention to the following signs:

  • You can’t wake up without an alarm.
  • You feel tired when you wake up.
  • You can’t get through the day without napping.
  • You feel sleepy during the day.
  • You fall asleep within minutes of going to bed.

Tips for Getting More ZZZs

Aging and Sleep - Sleep Habits

If you experience sleep problems due to an underlying medical condition or sleep disorder, you should consult your doctor or a sleep expert. On the other hand, if you have trouble sleeping for no particular reason, you might be able to improve your sleep quality by making a few changes in your lifestyle. Considering aging and sleep habits, here are a few simple tips that can help you improve your night’s rest:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Avoid napping, especially in the late afternoon.
  • Avoid consuming caffeinated beverages and alcohol.
  • Have a light dinner.
  • Spend more time outdoors to increase natural light exposure.
  • Your sleep environment should be pleasantly cool, dark, and quiet.
  • Avoid using electronic devices, such as laptops and smartphones, before bedtime.
  • Develop a relaxing bedtime routine—for example, listen to soothing music.

FAQ

How much sleep do I need, going by my age?

Newborns need the most sleep, up to 17 hours a day. As we get older, the amount of sleep we need gradually decreases until our adulthood, when we need 7–9 hours a night. The elderly sometimes need even less sleep, though only a little. You can see more specifics on the recommended sleep duration by age in the table above.

Why do seniors have difficulty sleeping?

There’s a wide range of factors that affect both sleep quantity and quality in seniors, from their medical condition to sleep disorders to unhealthy sleep habits. Sleep problems can also be caused by medications, psychological difficulties, and stressful life events.

Do we sleep less as we age?

Yes, we need less sleep as we get older. However, once we reach adulthood, our need for sleep doesn’t change much from then on. Whether we’re 20 or 50 years old, we need to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night. Even people aged 65 or older need a similar amount of sleep (7–8 hours a night).

How can seniors sleep better?

Seniors who have sleep issues first need to find out what the cause of their problem is. If they have a medical condition affecting their ability to sleep or a sleep disorder, they need to consult with their physician. On the other hand, if there’s no particular underlying cause for their sleep problems, they might try to improve their sleep hygiene by following our tips.

Conclusion

We hope that this article helped you better understand the relationship between aging and sleep. Considering that a good night’s rest is vital for your health and normal daily functions, you shouldn’t neglect this segment of your life. Don’t forget that you need to get enough quality sleep to feel rested and energized for your daily activities.

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