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Sleep and Aging

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Updated May 23, 2014

Mixed race woman sleeping in bed
Blend Images - Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Sleep Needs Don’t Change as You Age

There is a myth that older people need less sleep. That is simply not true. All adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. As we age, it gets more difficult to get a good night’s sleep. That doesn’t mean we don’t still need seven to nine hours. One of the challenges to healthy aging is troubleshooting sleep to ensure that we are getting enough rest for good health.

Sleep Changes in Older Adults

For a number of reasons, older people have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. As we age, we may notice some of the following:
  • Taking longer to fall asleep
  • Sleep is less deep
  • Waking up three or four times a night
  • Frequent nighttime bathroom trips
  • Sleep is not as restful or satisfying
  • Tendency to fall asleep in the early evening and wake up in the early morning

Why Older Adults Sleep Less

As we age, our bodies change. These changes impact the length and quality of our sleep. Depending on your situation, one of more of these factors may apply:
  • Hormones: As we age, our bodies secrete less of two important sleep hormones: melatonin and growth hormone.
    • Melatonin is important because changes in the level of this hormone control our sleep cycle. With less melatonin, many older adults feel sleepy in the early evening and wake up in the early morning. They also may have more trouble falling asleep.
    • Growth hormone is what makes children sleep so deeply. As we age, our body secretes less of this hormone and deep sleep becomes more difficult.
    • Menopause causes a great deal of hormonal changes in women, sometimes resulting in night sweats and other symptoms that interfere with sleep.
  • Health Conditions: Health conditions can interfere with sleep. As we age, we are more likely to develop a chronic illness. These illnesses result in changes in our body that interfere with normal sleep. By managing your health condition well, you can minimize this effect. Examples of how some illnesses interfere with sleep are:
    • Some health conditions (like arthritis) cause pain, which makes it difficult to fall asleep.
    • Other conditions (like diabetes or an enlarged prostate) may cause you to use the bathroom frequently during the night, which interrupts deep sleep.
    • Heart disease, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions may cause you to wake suddenly due to breathing difficulties or changes in heart rate.
    • Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and mental illnesses may cause anxiety that interferes with sleep.
  • Lifestyle Changes: As we age, our daily routines change. These changes can affect our sleep. By increasing exercise and time spent outdoors and decreasing napping, you will improve both the length and quality of your sleep:
    • Lifestyle Changes Older people get less exercise. Be sure to talk to your doctor and get a healthy amount of daily exercise.
    • Sunlight: Sunlight helps your body to produce melatonin, which regulates your sleep cycle. Try to get at least two hours of exposure to bright light each day. If it is difficult for you to get outside, consider using a full-spectrum light indoors.
    • Napping: While napping can be great, if you are napping more than 20 minutes a day, you may be interfering with your sleep.
    • Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine: These three culprits will wreak havoc on your sleep. If you are having trouble, cut back and be sure not to use any of these within three hours of going to bed.
  • Medications: As we age, it is more likely that we are taking one or more medications. These medications can often interfere with sleep. Your doctor may be able to change your medication to one that doesn’t cause you to lose sleep, or possibly change the time of day you take that medication. Some common medications that are known to interfere with sleep include: some high blood pressure medications, antidepressants, steroids, some decongestants and bronchodilators.

What To Do?

The good news is that you can usually greatly improve your sleep by identifying the underlying cause and making changes. If your lack of sleep is due to illness or medication, talk to your doctor about the possibility of changing the medication or the time of day you take it. Follow the above sleep tips and be sure to get some exercise and sunlight every day.

If your sleep does not improve, you may have a sleep disorder. Health conditions that prevent a person from falling asleep or staying asleep include sleep apnea and insomnia. A doctor can help treat these conditions.

Bottom line: Try making changes in your sleep and lifestyle habits. If that doesn’t help, talk to your doctor. Whatever you do, don’t accept being tired as part of getting older.

More on Improving Your Sleep

Sources:

National Institutes of Health. Sleep and Aging. About Sleep. The Mayo Clinic. Senior HealthInsomnia.

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