How Aging Affects Sleep

How Aging Affects Sleep

Elderly woan ssuffering from insomnia
Attaining a full-night’s sleep can become more elusive as we age.

In a related post, I mentioned that as adults get older, it doesn’t mean they need any less sleep than younger adults. Consider that in the older age range, you’re already facing an uphill battle. Once you’ve reached your late 40s, you’ve been robbed of 60 to 70 percent of the deep (NREM, or non-rapid eye movement) sleep you enjoyed as a teenager. This comes from Matthew Walker, PhD., director of the Center for Human Sleep Science and author of the book Why We Sleep. By the time you’ve reached your 70s and 80s, you’ve lost 80 to 90 percent of your much-needed deep sleep. 

Your sleep efficiency (defined as the percentage of time you are asleep when in bed) is 70 to 80 percent by the time you reach your 80s. This is below the 90 percent or higher considered to be “good.”

Insomnia’s Keeping you From the Shut-Eye You Crave

Many adults find that as they age, it takes longer to fall asleep (referred to as sleep latency). They also suffer from waking up multiple times during the night (which is sleep fragmentation). In plain terms, they likely have insomnia, which is more prevalent among older adults than those who are younger. One study found that 48 percent of older adults surveyed experience one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights per week. Insomnia may be chronic (lasting more than one month) or acute (lasting a few days or weeks) and often is related to an underlying cause such as medical or psychiatric condition.*

Melatonin and Your Circadian Rhythm

A key issue in the altered sleep patterns is the change in older adults’ circadian rhythm, or the internal process that regulates one’s sleep-wake cycle over a 24-hour period. As we age, our bodies tend to produce less of the hormone melatonin, and release it earlier than when we were younger. This causes us to go to sleep earlier. That doesn’t necessarily mean we sleep less, we fall asleep earlier in the evening — and then wake up earlier in the morning. This can be disheartening for those who have lived their lives as night owls. Even though I’ve been a morning person all my life, that doesn’t mean I enjoy waking up at 4 a.m. Who really needs more fatigue in their life?

Will Napping Hurt Your Sleep?

Do you enjoy a nap here or there if you’re tired? That may not be a problem. But if you rely on a nap getting you through each and every day, you may be setting yourself up for a shorter sleep cycle at night. Especially if you nap after 3 p.m.  According to the Mayo Clinic, older adults should keep naps to 10-20 minutes. Any longer can make you feel groggy when you do wake up. So give yourself time to actually become alert before undertaking any physical activity requiring coordination or quick responses. Also, if you sleep too much during the day, you may not be tired enough to sleep through the night.  

How Exercise Affects Sleep

No news alert here: With a few exceptions, exercise is good for you! But how does it affect your sleep? In one study, researchers found that long-term moderate aerobic exercise evoked significant improvements in sleep. It also improved mood and quality of life in those with chronic insomnia not caused by other medical or psychiatric disorders.** Keep in mind, the study involved moderate exercise. The effects didn’t vary between exercising in the morning or late afternoon. The problem is, as people get older, they often  become more sedentary. When I go to my doctor for a check-up and share my sleep issues, the first question she always asks is, “Have you been exercising?” She’s on to something.

Other Factors That Affect Sleep in the Elderly

This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of obstacles to attaining the perfect amount of shut-eye. But I hope it gave you a few insights into some of the key points. Whatever you do, remember to keep your healthcare provider in the loop on your health issues — including sleep deficits. 

*National Sleep Foundation 2003 Sleep in America poll

**Effects of Moderate Aerobic Exercise Training on Chronic Primary Insomnia

This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.

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