Aging and Sleep
As you get older, your sleep patterns change. This can be due to hormones, sleep apnea, depression or other causes. Poor sleep can have long-term and, sometimes, life-threatening effects. Learn what may disrupt your sleep as you age, when to be concerned, and how to improve your sleep at any stage of life.
- Written by Terry Turner
Senior Financial Writer and Financial Wellness Facilitator
Terry Turner has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including covering benefits, spending and congressional action on federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare. He is a Certified Financial Wellness Facilitator through the National Wellness Institute and the Foundation for Financial Wellness and a member of the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education (AFCPE®).Read More
- Edited ByLamia Chowdhury
Lamia Chowdhury is a financial content editor for RetireGuide and has over three years of marketing experience in the finance industry. She has written copy for both digital and print pieces ranging from blogs, radio scripts and search ads to billboards, brochures, mailers and more.Read More
- Published: August 9, 2022
- Updated: August 10, 2022
- 6 min read time
- This page features 6 Cited Research Articles
- Edited By
How Does Aging Affect Sleep?
Sleep patterns change as part of the normal aging process. These changes can vary drastically from one person to another and can include any of the following.
- Falling asleep later
- Falling asleep earlier
- Sleeping in longer
- Waking up earlier
- Waking up more throughout the night
- Taking more naps during the day
- Experiencing less deep sleep
- Experiencing insomnia
Several physiological and psychological factors can contribute to a change in your nightly routine. Some causes may include hormonal changes, depression, anxiety, or discomfort or pain from chronic illnesses.
Melatonin levels can also play a big factor in quality of sleep since it is a hormone that helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm and, in turn, helps you fall and stay asleep.
According to a study from the National Library of Medicine, melatonin levels decline with age, which may increase conditions related to circadian rhythm, such as sleep disorders.
How Much Sleep Do Older Adults Need?
According to the National Institute of Aging, everyone — regardless of age — requires seven to nine hours of sleep every night to support healthy aging. A full night’s rest can help you stay healthy and alert while offering many other positive benefits.
As you enter retirement life and have more time on your hands, your sleep schedule and daily routine can easily shift or become disrupted due to lack of structure. So, it’s important to prioritize sleep and get enough to maintain an active lifestyle.
Is It Normal To Sleep More When You Get Older?
People over the age of 65 tend to feel drowsier and take more naps during the day than younger adults because they typically experience less deeper stages of sleep overall — including REM, also known as rapid eye movement.
A restorative nap during the day doesn’t have to be a cause for concern but sleeping all the time can become problematic if you’re spending all day in bed or dozing off rather than engaging in life. This can result from simple boredom or more serious issues, such as overmedication (known as polypharmacy), depression, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Sleep When You’re Older?
While too much sleep can be concerning, the reality is, not enough asleep is a bigger problem as it can lead to premature aging or even death.
A study published by the Population Reference Bureau found that sleeping less than six hours per night is associated with poor or fair health but sleeping more is not linked to any health consequences.
The study, conducted by UCLA, found that partial sleep deprivation activates molecular pathways that drive biological aging, causes deterioration in your cell’s ability to grow and divide, and may increase the risk of chronic disease.
However, if you’re sleeping nine or more hours at night, feel extreme sleepiness during the day or find daytime naps to be nonrestorative, then you may have hypersomnia. The sleep disorder includes a range of conditions, including narcolepsy, which is characterized by the inability to stay awake during the day despite sleeping enough at night.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, your doctor may suggest lifestyle changes or prescribe medication depending on the severity.
Common Sleep Issues in Older Adults
Anywhere between 40% to 70% of older adults experience chronic sleep problems and nearly half of all cases go undiagnosed, according to the Atlas of Clinical Sleep Medicine. These problems can significantly impact not only quality of life but also one’s overall health. Some of the most common sleep issues in older adults include the following.
- Insomnia is the most prevalent sleep problem for adults ages 60 and older. The condition can last for days, months and even years, and includes everything from the inability to fall or stay asleep at night to waking up tired. Over-the-counter and prescription medications can help you sleep but they are not a cure for insomnia.
- Sleep apnea
- Because it causes short pauses in breathing, sleep apnea can lead to drowsiness during the day and potentially more serious problems, such as high blood pressure, stroke and memory loss. If you think you have sleep apnea, you should talk to your doctor about performing a sleep study. Sleep apnea can be treated or greatly reduced by sleeping in a position that keeps your airways open, using a CPAP or dental device while you sleep, or surgery.
- Restless legs syndrome
- Known as RLS, restless legs syndrome causes a feeling of tingling, crawling, or pins and needles in one or both legs that is exacerbated by lying down or sitting for long periods of time and is often worse at night. If you are experiencing RLS, talk to your doctor. There are non-drug treatments, including everything from exercising regularly and avoiding caffeine to soaking in a tub and taking magnesium and iron supplements. If those don’t help, prescription medications can help with more frequent and severe RLS.
- The urge to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night is known as nighttime urination or nocturia. It affects up to 80% of older adults and is a major cause of sleep disruption. If you’re experiencing nocturia, talk to your doctor. It could be part of the normal aging process or, in some cases, symptoms of a bigger issue. It can be treated or reduced by anything from wearing compression socks and sleeping with your legs elevated to taking prescription medications.
Sleeping Tips for Seniors
While some chronic conditions require medical intervention and medication, there are several changes you can make on your own to improve your sleep quality. Here are a few ways you can enhance your sleep routine through everyday changes.
- Establish a regular schedule of when you go to sleep and wake up
- Exercise regularly
- Eat healthy — and at least four hours before going to sleep
- Limit or avoid caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol and big meals before bed
- Create a calming environment free of distractions such as TV, cellphones, and bright lights before bed
- Avoid looking at devices an hour before bed
- Minimize liquid intake before sleep
Gradual changes can make a big difference. To avoid overwhelming your routine, start by adopting just a few tips and slowly integrate more over time.
Impact of Diet and Exercise on Sleep for Aging Adults
A healthy diet can help ensure a healthy sleep pattern regardless of age. But as you get older, it’s important to be more mindful of the things you’re putting in your body and when. For example, high-sugar foods and refined carbs, such as white bread, white rice, pasta, and potatoes, can not only make it harder to fall asleep, but it can also contribute to a lack of deep sleep.
The same applies to spicy food, alcohol, cigarettes and consuming caffeine later in the day. And while it’s important to stay hydrated, drinking too much of any liquid right before bed can cause you to wake in the middle of the night for bathroom breaks.
Exercise, on the other hand, releases certain chemicals that can help promote restful sleep. Even if you have mobility issues, there are a range of exercises you can do regularly, including swimming and water aerobics, dancing, lawn bowling, golfing, cycling, walking, and even chair exercises.
6 Cited Research Articles
- National Institute on Aging. (2020, November 3). A Good Night’s Sleep. Retrieved from: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/good-nights-sleep
- National Institute on Aging. (n.d.). 10 Myths About Aging. Retrieved from: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/10-myths-about-aging
- Pharm, C. (2018, August 31). Should Melatonin Be Used as a Sleeping Aid for Elderly People? Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6699865/
- Cooke, J.R. and Ancoli-Israel, S. (2012, January 1). Normal and Abnormal Sleep in the Elderly. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3142094/
- Population Reference Bureau. (n.d.). New Evidence on Sleep’s Role in Aging and Chronic Disease. Retrieved from: https://www.prb.org/resources/new-evidence-on-sleeps-role-in-aging-and-chronic-disease/
- Miner, B. and Kryger, M.H. (2016, December 20). Sleep in the Aging Population. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5300306/#R6