Sleep and Aging

As we age, our bodies go through many changes.  It may be necessary to have eyeglasses for reading; hearing may not be as sharp as it once was; and muscles can ache like never before.  Many people also experience changes in sleep , though the National Sleep Foundation (NFS) says the need for sleep does not change with age.  According to NSF, most people require about seven to nine hours of sleep throughout adulthood.

What creates this challenge for older adults to get a restful nights sleep?  Lifestyle changes, medical conditions and physical changes may play their part.  Daytime naps can reduce sleepiness at bedtime.  Poor sleep habits may have become firmly established.  Stress, bereavement or losses in general may lead to early awakenings or interrupted sleep.  In addition, a neighbor's dog or a passing siren may be more troubling as we grow older.

"It's important to remember that persistent trouble falling asleep at night or frequent drowsiness by day is not normal or inevitable with any age," says Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D. of the Veterans Association Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry in San Diego, who is an expert on sleep and aging.


Middle-aged and elderly people tend to spend less time in deeper sleep than younger people.  Also, the average sleep time increases slightly after age 65, but so do reports of difficulty falling asleep.  Research suggests that the reasons for the difficulty falling asleep may be associated with the physical changes that occur during aging.  The elderly generally secrete lesser amounts of certain hormones that regulate the sleep/wake cycle.  There are also changes in the body temperature that occur with age.  In addition, a decrease in exposure to natural light and dietary changes may intensify sleep difficulties.  Falling asleep isn't the only problem older people may face at night.  Sleep may become more shallow, fragmented, and variable in duration with age.  Older adults tend to wake more frequently than younger people and daytime sleepiness ensues.


Sometimes, age-related changes mask underlying sleep disorders.  For instance, sleep apnea, a breathing disorder, is more common in the middle and elder years.  Loud snoring is one of the most common indicators of sleep apnea.  The instance of sleep apnea rises dramatically after the age of 65 (28% men and 24% women). 

Aging also increases the prevalence of other sleep disorders such as Periodic Limb Movements Disorder (PLMD) and Restless Legs Syndrome.  Sleep disorders result in nighttime insomnia, daytime sleepiness, and overall sleep deprivation.

The good news is that sleep disorders are treatable.  There are a variety of medications, lifestyle changes, and devices that can be used to attain a good night's sleep.  Consult with your healthcare professional or contact our sleep disorders specialist to determine if you have a sleep disorder and the best treatment options.


Older people are more likely to suffer medical problems such as arthritis, heartburn, depression and heart disease that can interrupt, delay or shorten sleep.  Pain, whether it's chronic or occasional, can also be a sleep stealer.  NSF polls cite back pain, headaches, muscular aches, leg cramps, and sinus pain as the most common causes of sleep disruptions due to nighttime pain.


Senior are more likely to take a number of medications that may adversely affect sleep.  Common medications used to treat chronic medical conditions may have a negative impact on sleep.

Caffiene, alcohol, and nicotine also have a negative impact on sleep.  Caffiene taken too late in the day can make it harder to fall asleep.  Although alcohol may speed up the onset of sleep, it leads to disrupted sleep later in the night.  As for nicotine, it has been linked to problems falling and staying asleep and daytime sleepiness.


Dr. Ancoli-Israel offers the following tips for older adults to attain a good night's sleep:

-Excersice regularly, but avoid doing so at least three hours before bed-time.
-Limit naps to one per day for less than 30 minutes in the early afternoon.
-Take a walk in the late afternoon/early evening to increase light exposure.
-Check medications - many may be disturbing sleep.
-Avoid alcohol, caffiene, nicotine, particularly in the afternoon and evening.
-Limit liquids in the evening.
-Keep sleep environment dark, quiet and cool.
-Keep a regular schedule; go to bed and get up at the same time every day.

A good night's sleep is not out of reach!  If you're having trouble with sleep, there are treatments and help available.  Consult your healthcare professional or give us a call. 

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