Aging and Sleep – What You Need to Know

Aging and Sleep

Over 200 years ago, Robert Owen fought to improve working conditions during the Industrial Revolution. He was the one to postulate, “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”—a motto we still live by to this day that also reflects the contemporary opinion that adults need 7–9 hours of sleep.

Today, however, we live in a busy age where life moves fast, and most of us have trouble unwinding. In an attempt to catch up, our rest time often gets the shorter end of the stick. Furthermore, sleep needs don’t diminish as we age. Aging and sleep is a topic worth investigating because a new set of challenges arises with age. As a result, irregular sleeping patterns and insufficient sleep take a toll on seniors’ health in more ways than one.

In this post, we will answer all questions regarding sleep and sleeping problems. As you know, we at MedAlertHelp.org focus on senior health, so this post will cover sleep and aging in detail,  including reasons that cause seniors to lose sleep, the effects this has on their health, and tips on improving sleep in seniors. Let’s dive right in.

Why Is Sleep Important?

To better understand aging and sleep problems, we must first explain why sleep is so important for our health and normal functioning. The quantity, but also the quality, of your sleep greatly influences your physical and mental health while you’re awake. This includes your productivity, creativity, vitality, emotional state, heart and brain health, and immune system, as well as your weight.

Though your body and your mind shut down when you sleep, your brain keeps busy overseeing biological functions, reorganizing memories from the past, and preparing you for the following day. A sudden change in your sleep pattern causes numerous problems during the day. Without the appropriate amount of uninterrupted sleep, you won’t be able to learn, work, create, communicate, and otherwise perform at your usual level. Moreover, prolonged periods of sleep deprivation can cause major mental and physical problems.

The quantity of sleep is not the only thing we need to think about because not all sleep is equal. You may be having enough hours of sleep but still feel tired in the morning. The reason for this may be the fact that something is keeping you from spending enough time in different stages of sleep—especially in the “deep sleep” stage, when we are most relaxed, and the REM phase, when we dream. Improper sleep patterns and aging have been thoroughly studied, but it remains somewhat inconclusive as to why exactly sleep patterns change as we get older.

How Common Are Sleeping Problems in Seniors?

Aging and Sleep

Sleeping problems are very common in seniors. More than half of adults over the age of 65 experience at least one problem with sleeping. These can include the following:

  • Taking a long time to fall asleep
  • Frequently waking up from sleep during the night
  • Waking up early and not being able to get back to sleep
  • Feeling tired after waking up
  • Being sleepy during the day

When it comes to aging and sleep deprivation, the above problems are not strictly related to old age, but they are much more prevalent in seniors.

How Many Hours of Sleep Do You Need?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep requirements change dramatically for different age groups. So the answer to this question entirely depends on your age. They list two ranges for each age group. One includes the number of hours of sleep needed, and the other a wider range that may be more appropriate for certain people. However, the lower figures are not recommended for everyone nor are they necessarily recommended for long periods of time. Take a look at the table below for the evidence-based recommendations for every age group, including seniors, according to sleep and aging statistics.

Average Sleep Needs by Age

AgeHours of sleep neededMay be appropriate
Newborn to 3 months old14–17 hours11–19 hours
4 to 11 months old12–15 hours10–18 hours
1 to 2 years old11–14 hours9–16 hours
3 to 5 years old10–13 hours8–14 hours
6 to 13 years old9–11 hours7–12 hours
14 to 17 years old8–10 hours7–11 hours
Young adults (18 to 25 years old)7–9 hours6–11 hours
Adults (26 to 64 years old)7–9 hours6–10 hours
Older adults (65+)7–8 hours5–9 hours

Now we can answer questions like “how much sleep is needed for a 70 year old?” By looking at the table, we can see that older adults need a similar amount of sleep as adults. The difference is only one hour. However, the majority of seniors have trouble meeting these requirements, especially in regards to sleeping without interruptions at night.

Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep

If you stop meeting the above sleep requirements, and this becomes a habit, the chances are you’ll become sleep deprived. The signs may be subtle, and you might not even know they are caused by sleep deprivation. Changes in sleep patterns and aging can seem natural, but they are not normal behavior. After a while, you may even forget how it feels to be fully rested. These are some of the signs of being sleep deprived:

  • Needing an alarm to wake up on time
  • Repeatedly snoozing the alarm
  • Having a hard time getting out of bed
  • Feeling exhausted in the afternoon
  • Getting sleepy in lectures, meetings, or warm rooms
  • Becoming drowsy after big meals or while driving
  • Needing to take naps throughout the day
  • Falling asleep while relaxing in the evening
  • Sleeping in on weekends
  • Falling asleep within minutes of going to bed

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

It can be hard to notice the connection between sleep problems and their specific effects. For instance, sleep deprivation and skin aging can be related, but you may not think of your poor sleeping habits as the reason you look older than people your own age. The lack of sleep can go on for years, and its negative effects go way beyond daytime sleepiness. Some of the effects of long-term sleep deprivation can include:

  • Exhaustion, apathy, and lack of motivation
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Increased risk of depression
  • Weight gain
  • Lack of creativity and reduced problem-solving skills
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Inability to deal with stress and manage emotions
  • A weakened immune system, which can cause frequent colds and other infections
  • Impaired motor skills which can increase the risk of accidents
  • Hallucinations and delirium
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Increased risk of developing serious health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain cancers
  • Sleep deprivation and brain aging can lead to impaired cognitive abilities such as learning, focus, and memory problems
  • And lastly, there’s a connection between poor sleep and aging skin

What Are the Causes of Sleep Problems in Seniors?

There are numerous causes that contribute to sleep problems in older adults. Most are not related to aging and sleep habits, but some can be more frequent in old age. Here are the most common causes of sleep disorders in seniors:

  • Insomnia: If you take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, wake up many times each night, wake up early and are unable to get back to sleep, and get up feeling tired, you have insomnia. Short-term insomnia can be brought on by many medical or psychiatric conditions. If it lasts more than a month even if the original cause is resolved, it is considered chronic.
  • Sleep-Disordered Breathing: These include snoring and sleep apnea, which cause difficulty breathing during sleep. Nearly 40% of adults snore and snoring is more common in older adults and obese people. It’s caused by a partial blockage of the airway passage from the nose and mouth to the lungs. Sleep apnea is more severe than snoring, and it can make you stop breathing due to a partial or complete blockage in the airways, which wakes you up in the middle of the night. Sleep apnea and aging also go hand in hand, and it is much more common in obese people. It can significantly increase the risk of high blood pressure, strokes, heart disease, and cognitive problems.
  • Movement Disorders: There are two movement disorders that make it harder to sleep—restless leg syndrome (RLS), which affects over 20% of seniors, and periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), which can be found in nearly 40% of older adults. People with RLS experience the feelings of tingling, crawling, or pins and needles in their legs, while those who have PLMD jerk and kick their legs often during sleep. This causes them and their sleeping partners to have trouble sleeping.
  • Chronic Conditions: Some of the reasons the elderly can’t sleep at night can be chronic conditions that prevent them from falling asleep or waking up. These can include chronic pain, for instance, due to arthritis, heart failure, hyperthyroidism, heartburn, menopause, Parkinson’s disease, and so on.
  • Medications: Side-effects of some medications can keep you awake at night. Others may make you fall asleep during the day, which makes it harder to sleep at night. Talk to your doctor if you suspect you have trouble sleeping as a result of a medication you started taking recently.
  • Change: Certain changes like financial problems, a new illness, moving to an assisted care facility, or the death of a loved one can cause stress that triggers elderly sleep disorders.
  • Retirement: Finally, something as simple as retirement can be your primary cause of insomnia. Why? If you have a lot of free time and not much activity during the day, you’ll be less tired in the evening, which can cause you to be unable to fall asleep.

Treatments for Sleep Disorders

The treatment of sleep disorders in the elderly revolves around identifying and treating the underlying causes that lead to sleep deprivation. This can include working on changing your sleep habits, treating chronic illnesses and psychiatric issues, substituting medications that disrupt sleep with other solutions with fewer side-effects, and learning to cope with stress and changes. All of these issues have to be resolved before turning to sleeping pills, and you should turn to them only as a last resort and for short periods of time.

Tips for Better Aging and Sleep

If you’ve successfully resolved the problems that cause you to lose sleep, or if you don’t have any specific issues but still have trouble sleeping, there are many steps to help you get a good amount of quality shut-eye. The following tips are recommended for anyone who is looking to improve their quality of sleep:

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule
  • Avoid afternoon naps
  • Manage your stress
  • Be active for at least 30 minutes each day
  • Don’t drink caffeine or eat heavy meals before sleep
  • Improve your sleep environment by keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool
  • Have a relaxing bedtime routine—for instance, take a warm bath before sleep, light scented candles, or try using certain essential oils
  • Avoid looking at screens at night and read by a dim light
  • If you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed and try again later

Aging and Sleep

FAQ

How does sleep change as we age?

Our sleeping needs change as we grow and age. A newborn needs as much as 17 hours of sleep. The necessary amount of sleep decreases progressively before reaching a plateau of 7–9 hours when we become adults. This remains our target amount of sleep for most of our lives.

How many hours of sleep do older adults need?

Adults aged 65+ need at least 7–8 hours of sleep to function properly when they are awake. A wider range of 5–9 hours may be appropriate for some people, but it is not recommended for longer periods of time.

Do seniors need less sleep?

Technically, yes, but only one hour less than adults aged 26 to 64. This is because we need less sleep to become fully rested as we get older.

Do you sleep more as you get older?

In general, no. Most seniors sleep fewer hours overall than they did when they were younger, but they take more frequent naps during the day.

Is it bad to have too much sleep?

Other than wasting precious time, oversleeping has been linked with a number of medical issues such as diabetes, obesity, headaches, back pain, depression, heart disease, and the increased risk of death.

Do sleep patterns change as we age?

Yes, growing older has been known to cause trouble falling asleep, waking up during the night, sleeping during the day, and not spending enough time in deep sleep and REM phases.

What causes insomnia in older adults?

Insomnia in older adults can be caused by anything from poor sleeping habits, chronic illnesses, medications, psychological difficulties or psychiatric disorders, and specific sleep disorders to retirement.

Is insomnia a symptom of dementia?

Studies of aging and sleep habits have suggested a link between sleep deprivation and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Insomnia in older adults can be a warning sign of dementia.

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