How Sleep Changes as We Age
Most adults find that getting a solid night’s sleep becomes harder as they get older. But that’s not all that changes—sleep patterns and the amount of rest you need look a lot different at 70 than at 17. Here are some tips for getting the most out of hitting the hay.
Basics of sleep
Sleep is the body’s recovery period, a time when its functions slow down, the nervous system becomes less active, muscles relax and cells have an opportunity to rebuild. Sleep is an essential part of health, enabling our brains to recover and re-energize from the day.
Age-related changes that result in reduced sleep duration and quality can have serious ramifications.
The body typically goes through five sleep stages. Stages 1 and 2 are lighter; 3 and 4 are deeper. In the last stage, we move on to the state of rapid eye movement sleep, or REM sleep. It is characterized by rapid eye movement, shallow breathing and temporary limb paralysis. It’s when we wake or are woken from REM sleep that we most commonly remember dreams.
After the REM stage of sleep, the cycle repeats throughout the night.
A sleep cycle is typically 50 minutes for children and 90 to 100 minutes for adults, who typically go through four to six cycles each night. With age, less time is spent in stages 3 and 4 and more time in stages 1, 2 and REM. The result can be lighter sleep and being woken up more easily during the night.
Time spent sleeping
The time you spend asleep changes significantly over your lifespan. When you were a newborn, you slept 16 to 20 hours a day whereas as an adult, you probably average six to nine hours each night.
Many older adults report insomnia, which mostly entails having difficulty falling asleep, waking in the middle of the night or very early in the morning and then having trouble getting back to sleep.
Insomnia may be related to a decrease in the body’s natural sleep-producing hormone, melatonin, produced by the brain when it senses darkness. Melatonin regulates the circadian rhythm, which can also be impacted by changes in hormones. Insomnia can also be caused by stress or anxiety.
When we go to sleep also changes as we age. Newborns and infants sleep in several-hour cycles, waking to feed, eventually becoming able to sleep through the night without naps in the day. Changes in our circadian rhythm often cause adolescents to opt for significantly later bedtimes.
In adults, though, changes in the internal clock and sleep-wake homeostasis narrow the sleep window, and as adults move into their senior years, difficulty sleeping through the night commonly results in a reversion to sleeping in blocks and taking naps during the day. Seniors may also go to bed earlier and wake up earlier.
Quality of sleep
By adulthood, the sound night’s sleep we enjoyed as children is a distant memory. Up to 70 percent of older people experience problems that reduce sleep quality.
Menopausal women commonly experience insomnia, night-time hot flashes and other sleep inhibitors. Medical conditions—sleep apnea, respiratory disorders, arthritis, congestive heart failure, depression—can also factor.
Sleep deprivation can have a devastating impact on work, relationships, sex and quality of life.
How to improve your sleep
Treating underlying medical problems can significantly improve sleep quality. A specialist can identify possible sleep disorders and make recommendations to improve sleep hygiene and sleep quality.
If you’re struggling to fall asleep at night, limit naps during the day; if you must sleep in the day, keep nap duration to less than 20 to 25 minutes. Remove phones, laptops and televisions out of the bedroom and avoid blue light—a part of the light spectrum that you get a lot of from LCD screens and that is said to suppress the brain’s release of melatonin—from any devices at least 30 minutes before bed.
Create a consistent bedtime routine; engaging in a relaxing activity to wind down (yoga, meditation, reading) or taking a short, evening stroll can help quiet the mind.
As with most things in the cycle of life, sleep alters with age. Practicing good sleep habits and seeking advice from your doctor can help you maximize your zzzs.