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6 Ways Sleep Changes as You Age

Knowing why a good night’s rest becomes harder to come by can help you make adjustments to get your Zzzzs
Written by 
Meghan Rabbitt
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

Unless you’re still in your teens, the days of falling asleep in five minutes flat and sleeping like a rock until 11 a.m. are likely a distant memory. But if you’ve noticed that it’s become harder to simply get a solid eight hours rest than it was even a few years ago, it’s not your imagination. Getting older affects sleep quantity and quality—it’s harder to fall asleep, stay asleep and, ultimately, achieve optimal sleep as we get older.

Both biology and the stressors of life, which can accumulate over time, contribute to worsening sleep. As we get older, changes in our bodies make it harder to get a good night’s rest, and factors like medical conditions and financial and familial worries can compound our sleep troubles. “The amplification of stressors is no small thing,” says Param Dedhia, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “Something can be light as a feather, but if you have 1,000 feathers, it’s no longer feather-light. It becomes much heavier over a period of time, and this can make it harder to get a good night’s rest.”

Not getting enough rest on a regular basis can, of course, leave you feeling tired and cranky, but it can also affect your health. Sleep problems can lead to accidents and falls, cognitive decline, a lowered immune system and weight gain—among several other issues. There are emotional costs, too: “You may feel very frustrated or depressed,” Dr. Dedhia says.

While you can’t control all the factors that interfere with rest, you can make adjustments to your life that may improve your sleep. “You can only do so much, but anything you can do you ought to be doing,” Dr. Dedhia says. Here are some of the ways sleep changes as we get older, as well as tactics to try for a better night’s rest.

We May Find It Harder to Get to Sleep at Night

According to the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America poll, 44 percent of older persons experience one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights per week or more, which includes not being able to fall asleep. One reason you might be tossing and turning could be the emotions and stress that can result from mounting stressors and the life changes that happen with age. Whether you’re adjusting to retirement, are dealing with an empty nest or have experienced the death of a loved one, the toll these transitions take can significantly affect your sleep habits. “In any age group, but probably more as we get older, a busy brain is one of the biggest factors affecting sleep,” Dr. Dedhia says.

More: When the Terrain of Life Changes

What to Do: Establish a bedtime ritual that promotes a separation of daytime and nighttime and helps you release any pent-up emotions lingering from the day. Maybe it’s taking a long, hot bath, practicing deep breathing techniques or doing some calming stretches. Whatever you choose, the goal is to do something that induces relaxation by calming your mind. Getting some physical activity—it doesn’t have to be strenuous—for about 30 minutes most days can also help you fall sleep and stay asleep. You might not want to exercise in the evenings, though, as some find that it leaves them feeling wired. 

We Don’t Sleep as Deeply

As the years march on, we spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep and less time in deep, dreamless sleep. According to the National Institutes of Health, older people average three or four awakenings each night, and they’re more aware of each of them than younger individuals.

What to Do: Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake, and don’t drink them too late, as both can disrupt your sleep cycle once you’ve drifted off. You may also find it helpful to add a white noise machine to your bedroom, which can drown out sounds that might otherwise wake you when you’re in a light sleep. If you get especially frustrated when you wake up in the middle of the night, move your clock so you can’t see (and become frustrated by) it from your bed. And, again, consider exercising more. “An active lifestyle promotes deeper sleep,” Dr. Dedhia says.

We May Fall Asleep Earlier and Wake Up Earlier

As we age, our circadian rhythms—the internal “clock” that coordinates the timing of our bodily functions, including sleep—change. That’s why older adults tend to become sleepier in the early evening and wake earlier in the morning compared to younger adults. If your sleep rhythm has shifted like this, you might not be feeling any physical effects. After all, you’re still getting seven or eight hours of sleep, albeit during different times than most other people. However, while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing health-wise, it can affect your social life and mood.

What to Do: Try to re-set your circadian rhythm by staying up later. You might do this by taking a 20-minute nap if you feel sleepy in the afternoon (any longer and you could interfere with your sleep even more; more on this below). Research shows you can also shift your internal body clock a bit later by limiting your exposure to sunlight and bright lights in the morning hours.

We May Need More Daytime Naps

This can make nighttime sleep problematic. If you’re getting less (and poorer quality) sleep as you age, you’re probably going to be sleepier than usual during the day, which makes taking a nap appealing. While there’s nothing wrong with naps (in fact, there’s scientific evidence that supports the benefits of a short power nap), sleeping too much during the day can impact your ability to fall asleep at night.

What to Do: Continue to take naps, but adjust the timing of them if you’re having trouble falling asleep at night. While many experts say the ideal time to nap is between two o’clock and four o’clock in the afternoon, the time you naturally feel sleepy in the evenings should dictate your optimal time for a snooze. For example, if you tend to stay up past midnight, nap in the late afternoon; if you crawl into bed earlier in the evening, take your siesta in the middle of the day.

We’re More Likely to be Dealing with Health Issues That Interfere with Sleep

Certain medical challenges, such as heart disease, stroke, chronic pain, inflammatory conditions, menopause and nocturia (having to wake to urinate during the night), can affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep. What’s more, prescription drugs you might be taking to treat the symptoms of these health issues—or others—can also impact the quality of your sleep. Heart medications and anti-depressants are two common culprits.

What to Do: Dealing with underlying medical disorders that are keeping you up can dramatically improve your sleep. Talk to your doctor about how to treat the symptoms of health issues you face, and discuss medication side effects before leaving the doctor’s office. If a medication is negatively affecting your sleep, ask your doctor about trying a different drug or alternative treatments.  

We’re More Likely to Have a Sleep Disorder 

Not only is insomnia more prevalent in older adults, but sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder are also more likely to occur with age.

What to Do: If you’re dealing with the symptoms of one or more of these sleep disorders (a loved one who watches you sleep might spot the signs), it’s important to see a sleep specialist who can diagnose and help you treat the problem. Not only will this help you get a better night’s rest, but it can also positively impact your overall health. If sleep apnea goes untreated, for example, you’re at increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

“As we age, our sleep is going to change. We must cultivate a lifestyle that honors sleep.”
“As we age, our sleep is going to change. We must cultivate a lifestyle that honors sleep.”
Reference(s) 
Clinics in Geriatric Medicine (February 2008)
Harvard Medical School
MedlinePlus
National Institutes of Health
National Sleep Foundation
About the author 
Meghan Rabbitt is an editor and writer whose work has been published in Women’s Health, Fitness, Shape, Runner’s World, Prevention, Parents and Weight Watchers.