How Do Sleep Patterns Change as You Age?

There is an understanding that as we age our need for sleep decreases, and while this does hold true, it is not completely accurate. While newborns are expected to sleep 14-17 hours, adults should sleep 7-9 hours a night to maintain a healthy sleep routine. The trend of getting less sleep as we age tapers off around age 60, based on research done by the National Institution of Aging. According to National Sleep Foundation guidelines, senior adults need 7-8 hours of sleep per night. This isn’t to say that the need for sleep drastically declines, but the ability to get high quality sleep decreases as we get older. These studies have overwhelmingly shown that seniors have trouble getting the quality of sleep they once had when they were younger.

The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that optimizes our body’s processes and functionality

What Getting Older Means for Your Sleep

Like all of our activities, sleep is dictated by the brain. The hypothalamus is a small but crucial region of the brain which contains the suprachiasmatic (SCN). The SCN controls the circadian rhythm, also known as the body’s internal clock. The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that optimizes our body’s processes and functionality. The SCN and the circadian rhythm help our bodies to recognize environmental changes, like daylight and nighttime, to promote the proper response when given certain environmental cues. This is why light signals our brain to be awake and darkness prompts us to sleep. As we get older, our SCN begins to deteriorate, which directly affects our circadian rhythm. Additionally, seniors report having significantly less daytime exposure, limiting one of the most important cues for our internal clock. These are natural, biological factors that change our sleeping patterns as we age.

Aside from shifts in the 24-hour cycle, older adults experience changes within the function of the sleep cycle itself. The sleep cycle consists of 4 stages. The first two stages are lighter sleep in which your body begins to relax. The final two stages are deeper sleep, where physical and mental restoration takes place. As you get older, there is a decline in Stages 3 and 4 but an increase in Stage 1. Basically, sleep is not as rejuvenating because you’re no longer getting as much deep sleep, but instead getting mostly light sleep. This is a decrease in sleep efficiency.

Common Issues Aging Has on Your Sleep

Another factor that affects sleep quality as we age is that older demographics tend to be more susceptible to physical and mental health conditions. Arthritis is a common issue for seniors, and can cause persistent discomfort that can ultimately affect your quality of rest. Some other mental health issues seniors face include anxiety and depression, both of which can have devastating effects on sleep. In 2003, the National Sleep Foundation conducted a poll on people between the ages of 65-84. 24% of these participants revealed they each had several health conditions. These same participants, also, had sleep-related issues and struggled with getting restorative sleep.

To combat these conditions, many seniors are prescribed medications to alleviate their symptoms. Unfortunately, these medicines can often come with side effects that make sleep more difficult. Research has found that many over-the-counter and prescription drugs used to treat anxiety and depression contribute to sleep problems and can cause or contribute to insomnia. Aside from general health conditions, experts have discovered that 40-70% of seniors have chronic sleep issues such as:

  • Nighttime Urination
  • Daytime Drowsiness
  • REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

Tips to Improve Sleep for Seniors

As we age, it is very common to see a change in sleep quality and quantity, but there are actions we can take to reduce these issues. Some tips to practice for good sleep hygiene include:

  • Regular Exercise: The National Institute of Aging recommends that this is the best thing older people can do for their overall health.
  • Reduce Electronic Distractions: It’s best to avoid cell phones, laptops, televisions, etc. at least 30 minutes before going to bed. Such devices can make it challenging to fall asleep, especially for older demographics because of their increased sensitivity to light.
  • Avoid Substances Discouraging Sleep: Alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, and large meals right before bed can delay the onset of sleep.
  • Create a Healthy Sleep Environment: The ideal environment is a cool, dark, and quiet room. The combination of these elements creates a relaxing atmosphere. It, also, helps to have a supportive mattress to minimize or eliminate any discomfort.