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How Aging Changes Your Sleep Patterns: Senior Living
Brenda Peralta

Fact Checked And Medically Reviewed By Edit Lepine, Certified Holistic Nutrition Practitioner

By Brenda Peralta, Registered Dietitian and Health Coach

Last Updated on December 29th, 2023

Sleep

How Aging Changes Your Sleep Patterns: Senior Living

Do you toss and turn every night? You stare at the ceiling, thinking about strategies to help you get better sleep. But, no matter what you do, something about getting older has affected your sleep quality. 

There is nothing more frustrating than having a poor night’s sleep. You wake up groggy with a lousy mood, not to mention the cravings you may be having throughout the day. 

After all, sleep plays a crucial role in health. It allows your body to recharge, so you wake up refreshed and alert. It can also help improve brain function and reduce cravings. 

According to research, it’s estimated that up to 75%1 of older adults have chronic sleep problems. This is higher than what the general population experiences. In fact, only 15-22%1 of the general population complains about sleep problems. 

Unfortunately, older people who don’t have enough sleep are more likely to suffer from cognitive problems, such as depression and memory issues. In addition, it may also increase the risk of chronic illnesses (diabetes, weight gain, and heart issues). 

But don’t worry; this article will explore how sleep patterns change with aging. It’ll break down the underlying causes and provide you with actionable strategies for improving sleep quality. 

How Sleep Patterns Change With Age?

Sleep patterns are likely to change as you age. The total sleep time may be affected. This reduces how many hours you sleep every night.

To understand why this happens, we need to understand the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock. It is a crucial process that also regulates the sleep-wake cycle. 

There are different things that can affect the circadian rhythm. These include the environment, light, food, medical conditions, and medication. 

Age can also affect the circadian rhythm. That is why, as you get older, you find yourself waking up earlier and going to bed earlier. This is what we normally call “phase advance,2” which is when your circadian rhythm shifts earlier in the day. 

In addition, you may also notice other sleep changes, such as: 

  • Taking longer to go to sleep
  • Waking up several times during the night (sleep fragmentation)
  • Lower quality sleep
  • Frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom

What Are The Causes of Age-Related Sleep Changes?

As mentioned, one of the reasons most older adults suffer from sleep changes is due to changes in the circadian rhythm. Evidence3 suggests that these may be due to a reduction in melatonin levels. 

Melatonin is a hormone that responds to darkness. While melatonin doesn’t make you sleep, it promotes a state of relaxation that can promote sleep. So, when there is a drop in melatonin, changes in sleep can occur. 

Besides melatonin production, there are other factors that can cause changes in sleep as you get older. These include: 

  • Sunlight. As mentioned, melatonin is regulated by sunlight. Some older adults don’t get enough daily sunlight, which can affect their melatonin production. 
Sunlight

  • Napping. While napping can make you feel refreshed, it can affect your sleep patterns. Napping for more than 20 minutes can disturb your sleep. 
Old man taking nap

  • Lack of exercise. Older people tend to be more sedentary, which can affect the quality of sleep. 
Old man lying on Sofa

  • Reduced growth hormone. As you age, the body releases less growth hormone, which can affect deep sleep. 
Growth Hormone

  • Medical conditions. Certain health conditions, such as pain, arthritis, heartburn, and Alzheimer’s, can all affect sleep. If you suffer from any of these conditions and it’s affecting the quality of your sleep, speak with a health professional. 
Senior lady with a doctor

  • Menopause. Different things change when a woman reaches menopause, including sleep. For example, hot flashes and night sweats can all affect sleep. 

  • Medications. As you age, you are more likely to take more medications. Some of these medications promote insomnia as a side effect. Speak with a health professional to understand the possible side effects you may experience from any medication you are taking. 
Woem taking Medicines

  • Poor eating choices. Alcohol and caffeine may disrupt sleep. In addition, having a heavy meal before bedtime can also make you feel uncomfortable making it challenging to sleep. 
Man eating Junk food

What Is The Brain and Body’s Role In Sleep?

Most people think that sleep is a continuous process. However, sleep has two phases: rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep) and non-rapid eye movement sleep (non-REM sleep). 

Non-REM sleep is the calmest part of sleep. On the other hand, during REM sleep, your brain and body energize. You’re also likely to dream during this phase. In addition, during REM sleep, most of your memories and learning are processed. 

According to research,4 it seems that as we get older, REM sleep tends to decrease. This means that older adults are spending less time during the active brain movement phase. Consequently, some studies1 have shown that this may increase the risk of dementia. 

In addition to increasing the risk of dementia, lack of sleep can also have a negative effect on other cognitive functions. Research5 shows that poor sleep in the elderly can increase the risk:

  • Poor mood
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Impaired memory

Another study6 found that poor sleep can increase age-related cognitive diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. 

What Are The Effects of Age-Related Sleep Changes?

The brain is not the only one to suffer due to lack of sleep. In fact, the whole body can suffer negative consequences due to inadequate sleep. Here are some of the effects of sleep changes in the elderly: 

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Research7 shows that people who have poor sleep have a higher risk of heart disease. This may be due to the calcification of the arteries. In other words, calcium starts building up in the blood vessels, increasing the risk of blood clots and heart attacks. 
  • Increased inflammation. Studies8 have found that lack of sleep can increase inflammatory markers. This increases the risk of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes. 
  • Reduced immune function. Sleep deprivation may be the reason you are getting colds more often. It seems that poor sleep may decrease antibodies,9 which are responsible for fighting against external agents. 
  • Higher risk of obesity. Lack of sleep can result in increased cravings and hunger, leading to a higher risk of obesity. In fact, a 2008 study10 showed that people who sleep less had a higher chance of developing obesity. 

Sleep Tips For Older Adults

As you’ve seen, paying attention to sleep is highly important. If you don’t know what to do to help you improve your sleep, don’t worry! Here are some useful tips that can help you get a better night’s sleep. 

Keep in mind that the following tips are trial and error. What may work for someone may not work for you. So, the best thing you can do is experiment and keep track of the changes by using a sleep journal. This way, you can determine the best combination of changes for you. 

Tip 1: Build A Regular Bedtime Routine

  • Maintain a consistent bedtime schedule. Sleeping at the same time and waking up at the same time can help regulate your circadian rhythm. This includes weekends.
  • Have a soothing bedtime routine. It’s essential to prepare the body to go to sleep. You can try different things, such as taking a warm bath, spraying some lavender scent on your pillowcase, meditating, or yoga. 
  • Try a sleep aid. There are some natural sleep aids that may make it easier to go to bed. Ashwagandha, melatonin, and tart cherry juice are some of them. But please consult your doctor before taking any sleeping aid. 
  • Remove blue light devices. While it can be tempting to scroll through Facebook or play that game you love on your iPad, this can expose you to blue light from your device. This can affect melatonin levels and make it harder to go to bed. Instead, get an eReader or choose a book to read before bed. 

Tip 2: Create The Perfect Sleep Environment 

  • Make sure that your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool. If you are sensitive to noise, you can try earplugs or putting white noise. You can also use a sleep mask to remove all light. 
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable. The mattress plays an essential role in a good night’s sleep. Make sure it has the perfect support for you, reducing the risk of back pain and sleep apnea. 
  • Choose warm light. Artificial nights can affect the amount of melatonin released by your body. Low-wattage and warm lights can create the perfect environment to still have some light without affecting your sleep. 
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep. It can be tempting to watch a movie, read a book, or do other activities in your bed. However, doing so can make the brain associate your bedroom with something else rather than sleep. This can increase the time it takes for you to fall asleep. 

Tip 3: Know How To Nap

  • Keep it short. You don’t need to nap for several hours to feel rested. If you want to nap, stick to 15 to 45 minutes. 
  • Don’t nap close to bed time. Prefer napping early in the day or in the afternoon. Avoid napping in the evening since this can disrupt your sleep patterns. 

Tip 4: Incorporate Healthy Lifestyle Habits

  • Exercise. Exercising can be a great way to manage stress. This can make it easier to go to sleep. Try different types of exercises, such as swimming, dancing, golfing, bowling, or walking to find one that works for you. But, please speak with your doctor before trying a new exercise. 
  • Limit caffeine during the day. Avoid drinking soda, coffee, or tea at least 4-5 hours before bedtime. While you may feel that caffeine doesn’t have an effect on you, research11 shows that it may affect the length of your sleep cycles. 
  • Avoid alcohol before bedtime. It may seem like alcohol promotes sleep, but it decreases the quality of sleep. So, you are more likely to wake up in the middle of the night. It can also increase your bathroom trips. 
  • Avoid sugary foods. Sugar can increase wakefulness at night and disrupt your sleep cycles. Instead, choose whole-grain carbs. They provide steadier energy levels, and they are better for your heart and blood glucose levels. 
  • Reduce your liquid intake. To avoid going to the bathroom, minimize your liquid intake. one or two hours before bedtime. 

Conclusion

Sleep plays an important role in overall health. Poor sleep can lead to different health issues, such as an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. There are different causes of poor sleep as you age, such as decreased melatonin levels or underlying medical conditions. 

If you are having poor sleep, speak with a health professional to determine the root cause and determine the best course of action. Remember that good sleep can also improve mood and make you feel refreshed the following morning for all the fun activities you enjoy. 

Sources

  1. Miner B, Kryger MH. Sleep in the Aging Population. Sleep Medicine Clinics. 2017;12(1):31-38. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2016.10.008
  2. Crowley SJ, Eastman CI. Phase advancing human circadian rhythms with morning bright light, afternoon melatonin, and gradually shifted sleep: can we reduce morning bright-light duration? Sleep Medicine. 2015;16(2):288-297. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2014.12.004
  3. Hood S, Amir S. The aging clock: circadian rhythms and later life. Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2017;127(2):437-446. doi:https://doi.org/10.1172/jci90328
  4. Li J, Vitiello MV, Gooneratne NS. Sleep in normal aging. Sleep Medicine Clinics. 2018;13(1):1-11. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2017.09.001
  5. Stone KL, Xiao Q. Impact of Poor Sleep on Physical and Mental Health in Older Women. Sleep Medicine Clinics. 2018;13(3):457-465. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2018.04.012
  6. Lv YN, Cui Y, Zhang B, Huang SM. Sleep deficiency promotes Alzheimer’s disease development and progression. Frontiers in Neurology. 2022;13. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2022.1053942
  7. Short Sleep Duration and Incident Coronary Artery Calcification. JAMA. 2008;300(24):2859. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2008.867
  8. Mullington JM, Simpson NS, Meier-Ewert HK, Haack M. Sleep loss and inflammation. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2010;24(5):775-784. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beem.2010.08.014
  9. Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB. Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009;169(1):62. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2008.505
  10. Cappuccio FP, Taggart FM, Kandala NB, et al. Meta-analysis of short sleep duration and obesity in children and adults. Sleep. 2008;31(5):619-626. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/31.5.619
  11. Drake C, Roehrs T, Shambroom J, Roth T. Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2013;09(11). doi:https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.3170
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Brenda Peralta

Written By

Brenda Peralta

Registered Dietitian and Health Coach

Brenda is a Registered Dietitian and health coach with over nine years of clinical experience. But besides being a registered dietitian, she has certifications in sports nutrition, precision nutrition, diabetes education, women’s health specialist, fertility advisor, and gut health.

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  1. Gella says:

    My cousin suggested this website to me, however I’m not sure whether he wrote this post because no one else has such a detailed understanding of my struggles. You are amazing, thanks.

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