As we grow older, our bodies go through a number of changes that can impact our ability to get a good night's sleep. While it's true that people of all ages can struggle with insomnia and other sleep disorders, research has shown that aging can make it more difficult to get the restful sleep that we need to feel our best.
Why Does Aging Affect Sleep?
Before we explore how aging affects sleep, let's take a closer look at what happens when we sleep. Sleep is far from a passive state; it's a complex series of physiological processes that are crucial to our overall health and wellbeing. While we sleep, our bodies repair and regenerate cells, consolidate memories, and regulate hormones that are essential for our physical and emotional health.
Sleep Types: REM and Non-REM
There are two main types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.
REM sleep is when our brains are highly active and we experience vivid dreams.
Non-REM sleep is divided into three stages:
- Light sleep
- Deep sleep
- Very deep sleep
Each stage serves a different purpose and is characterized by distinct changes in brain activity, heart rate, and breathing.
So, why does aging affect sleep? Let's find out.
How Aging Affects Sleep
As we age, a number of changes can impact our ability to get the restful sleep that we need. Here are a few of the most common:
Changes in Sleep Architecture
One of the most significant changes that occurs as we age is a shift in our sleep architecture. As we get older, we spend more time in lighter stages of sleep and less time in the deeper stages of sleep that are most restorative. This can make it more difficult to feel rested in the morning and can lead to daytime fatigue and sleepiness.
As we age, our bodies produce less of the hormones that help us fall asleep and stay asleep. For example, melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle, decreases as we get older. This can lead to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night.
Aging is also associated with an increased risk of a number of health conditions that can impact sleep quality. For example, sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing is interrupted during sleep, is more common in older adults. Chronic pain, arthritis, and other conditions that become more prevalent with age can also make it more difficult to get a good night's sleep.
Shifting Sleep Schedule
As people age, the body’s circadian rhythms actually shift forward in time. This shift is called a phase advance. Many older adults experience this phase advance as getting tired earlier in the afternoon and waking up earlier in the morning.
Waking Up at Night
Research has shown that as people get older, they often experience changes in their sleep architecture. Older adults spend more time in the earlier, lighter stages of sleep and less time in the later, deeper stages. These shifts may contribute to older people waking up more often during the night and having more fragmented, less restful sleep.
Longer Recovery from Changes in Sleep Schedule
Alterations in how the body regulates circadian rhythms make it more difficult for older people to adjust to sudden changes in their sleep schedules, like during daylight saving time or when experiencing jet lag.
Research estimates that about 25% of older adults take naps, compared with around 8% of younger adults. While some experts suggest that a short daytime nap may be beneficial, many agree that extended napping and napping later in the day can make it harder to fall asleep at bedtime and create nighttime sleep disruptions.
Common Sleep Issues in Older Adults
While sleep disturbances are common among people of all ages, they become increasingly prevalent as we age. Here are some of the most common sleep issues experienced by older adults:
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night. It can be caused by a number of factors, including stress, anxiety, depression, and medications. Older adults are more likely to experience insomnia due to hormonal changes and other age-related factors.
Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing is interrupted during sleep. It can cause snoring, gasping for breath during sleep, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Sleep apnea is more common in older adults and can be caused by obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption, and other factors.
Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a condition characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move the legs. It can cause discomfort and disrupt sleep, making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night. RLS is more common in older adults and can be caused by iron deficiency, kidney failure, and other health conditions.
Periodic Limb Movement Disorder
Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) causes involuntary movements of the legs during sleep. These movements can cause disruptions in sleep and lead to excessive daytime fatigue. PLMD is more common in older adults and can be caused by Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and other health conditions.
It's important for older adults who experience any of these sleep issues to seek medical attention from their healthcare provider.
The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Aging
While it's important to understand how aging affects sleep, it's also crucial to recognize the impact that sleep deprivation can have on the aging process. Research has shown that chronic sleep deprivation can accelerate the aging process and increase the risk of a number of age-related health conditions.
Sleep is essential for cognitive function, including memory consolidation and learning. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to cognitive decline in older adults, including an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Sleep plays a critical role in cardiovascular health, including regulating blood pressure and reducing inflammation. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions.
Sleep is also essential for metabolic health, including regulating glucose metabolism and appetite hormones. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.
Immune System Function
Sleep is crucial for immune system function, including fighting off infections and inflammation. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to a weakened immune system in older adults, increasing the risk of illness and infection.
In short, while aging can impact our ability to get restful sleep, it's important to prioritize healthy sleep habits as we age to reduce the risk of age-related health conditions and maintain our overall wellbeing.
Tips for Getting Better Sleep as You Age
While aging can make it more difficult to get restful sleep, there are steps that you can take to improve your sleep quality. Here are a few tips:
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends.
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine that you follow every night before bed.
- Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening, as they can disrupt sleep.
- Exercise regularly, but avoid vigorous exercise in the evening.
- Try to limit daytime napping, especially if it interferes with your ability to fall asleep at night.
- Reduce your exposure to blue light in the evening by avoiding electronic devices for at least an hour before bed.
- Consider using white noise or other soothing sounds to block out external noises that may disrupt your sleep.
- Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows that support your body and help you stay cool throughout the night.
- Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to help calm your mind and body before bedtime.
- Avoid large meals and spicy or acidic foods before bed, which can cause indigestion and interfere with sleep.
- If you have trouble falling asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and engage in a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy again.
- Keep a sleep diary to track your sleep patterns and identify any factors that may be interfering with your restful sleep.
- Talk to your doctor about any medications you're taking that could be impacting your sleep.
Managing Stress to Improve Sleep Quality in Older Adults
Stress is a common problem that can affect sleep quality, especially in older adults. Chronic stress can cause the body to release hormones that make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to manage stress and improve your sleep quality.
Practice Relaxation Techniques
One of the most effective ways to manage stress is by practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. These techniques can help calm your mind and body before bedtime and promote restful sleep.
Regular exercise is another great way to manage stress and improve sleep quality. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters that can help alleviate stress and anxiety. However, it's important to avoid vigorous exercise in the evening, as this can actually make it more difficult to fall asleep.
Limit Caffeine and Alcohol Intake
Caffeine and alcohol are both known to increase feelings of anxiety and stress. It's important to limit your intake of these substances, especially in the evening when they're more likely to interfere with sleep.
Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine
Creating a relaxing bedtime routine can also help manage stress and promote restful sleep. This routine might include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, listening to soothing music or white noise, or practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation.
Finally, if you're feeling overwhelmed by stress or anxiety, don't be afraid to seek support from friends or family members. You may also want to consider talking with a mental health professional who can provide additional guidance on managing stress and improving sleep quality.
How Social Support and Relationships Can Improve Sleep Quality in Older Adults
Having a strong social support system can have a positive impact on sleep quality in older adults. Research has shown that people who feel connected to others and have supportive relationships are more likely to get restful sleep at night.
One reason for this is that social support can help reduce stress and anxiety, which are common causes of sleep disturbances. When we feel supported by others, we may be better able to manage the stressors of daily life, which can help us relax and fall asleep more easily.
Additionally, having strong social connections can provide a sense of purpose and meaning in life, which can improve overall wellbeing and lead to better sleep quality. For example, participating in group activities or volunteering with others can provide a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that translates into better sleep at night.
Older adults who live alone or who have limited social connections may be more vulnerable to sleep disturbances and other health issues. For these individuals, it's important to seek out opportunities for social connection and support. This might include joining a community group or club, volunteering with a local organization, or simply reaching out to family members or friends for regular contact.
By prioritizing social support and connection as we age, we can improve our overall health and wellbeing - including our ability to get restful sleep at night.
In conclusion, getting restful sleep is important for overall health and wellbeing, especially as we age. While aging can bring changes to our sleep patterns and increase the risk of sleep disturbances, there are steps we can take to improve our sleep quality. By prioritizing healthy sleep habits, managing stress, and seeking social support, we can reduce the risk of age-related health conditions and maintain our cognitive function, cardiovascular health, metabolic health, and immune system function.
- National Sleep Foundation. Aging and Sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/aging-and-sleep
- Harvard Health Publishing. Aging and Sleep: Making Changes for Brain Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/aging-and-sleep-making-changes-for-brain-health-2019072517298
- National Institute on Aging. Age Page - Insomnia. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/insomnia
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine. What is Sleep Apnea? https://aasm.org/resources/factsheets/sleepapnea.pdf
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Restless Legs Syndrome Fact Sheet. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/patient-caregiver-education/fact-sheets/restless-legs-syndrome-fact-sheet
- Cleveland Clinic. Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/14892-periodic-limb-movement-disorder-plmd