Health Topics

Sleep and Aging

Sleep and Aging

Why Age Affects Our Sleep

More than half of men and women over the age of 65 complain of at least one sleep problem. Many older people experience insomnia and other sleep difficulties on a regular basis. As we get older, our sleep patterns change. However, good restorative sleep is essential to our physical health and emotional well-being. General changes in sleep patterns caused by aging include:

  • More time spent in light sleep.
  • More disrupted night-time sleep.
  • A higher number of health conditions that negatively affect sleep quality and quantity.
  • More daytime naps that can lead to an irregular sleep-wake schedule.

In general, older people sleep less, experience more fragmented sleep and spend less time in stage 3 (deep sleep), and REM sleep, than younger people.

What Are the Causes of Sleep Problems in Older People?

Several factors might contribute to our inability to sleep well as we get older. Some of the common causes include:

  • Poor Sleep Habits. Irregular sleep-wake patterns can affect an individual’s circadian rhythm and make it hard to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Other sleep issues — such as consumption of alcohol before bedtime, increased wakeful time in bed or daytime napping — will also affect a person’s ability to sleep.
  • Medical Illness. Certain chronic medical conditions are common in older people. Some of these conditions —including heart failure, arthritis, heartburn, menopause and Alzheimer’s disease — affect sleep. These conditions can make it hard to fall asleep or might cause the person to awaken frequently, ultimately affecting the quantity and the quality of sleep.
  • Medicines. Some medicines might impair a person’s ability to fall asleep or stay asleep, and might even stimulate wakefulness at night.
  • Psychological Distress or Psychiatric Disorders. Old age is characterized by many life events, some positive and some negative. Some older individuals experience psychological difficulties or psychiatric disorders that will affect the quality and quantity of sleep. Depression is twice as common in old age compared to young adults and this can significantly affect the quality and the quantity of sleep. Also, life changes such as the death of a loved one, moving from a family home or physical limitations due to illness, can cause significant stress and sleep difficulties.
  • Sleep Disorders. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome (RLS), periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) and REM behavior disorder are associated with aging. All of these conditions can affect sleep. The risk of sleep apnea increases in old age (particularly in women) and affects not just sleep, but also the heart and brain.
  • Retirement. Retirement often leads to a lot of downtime with no specific plans. This often leads to an irregular sleep-wake schedule and chronic sleep problems.

For more information on sleeping problems, download our free Sleep Treatment Guide.