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Aging and Sleep: All You Need to Know

by Dr. Nikola Djordjevic, MD

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
  • Waking up from sleep often during the night
  • Waking up early and not being able to get back to sleep
  • Waking up tired
  • 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?

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 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

Aging and Sleep

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?

Getting a good night’s rest can be difficult in the best of times. The elderly often face extra challenges that come with aging. However, the sleep cycle, its duration and quality, is highly responsive to personal habits and behaviors, including diet. In turn, better sleep extends the lifespan and contributes to a higher quality of life.

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.
  • Dimming Eyesight: Natural light is pivotal to the timing of the sleep cycle. Special photoreceptors in the eyes, called ganglion cells, absorb the blue spectrum light that filters from the sun through the Earth’s atmosphere. These cells send signals directly to the circadian region of the brain, which controls, amongst other recurring bodily functions, the sleep cycle. As the eyes begin to dim with age, less light is absorbed. Consequently, the timing of the sleep cycle doesn’t stay in sync with the Earth’s day/night pattern. Excessive sleep in elderly people might be observed during the day, but, as a result,  they might have trouble sleeping at night, when they should be sleeping.
  • Physical Aches and Pains: Age brings with it arthritis, lingering injuries, and the loss of strength and flexibility, all of which can contribute to growing aches and pains. Consequently, it becomes harder to get comfortable at night.
  • Dementia-related Illness: Sleep disorders in aging and dementia or Alzheimer’s patients are well documented. Those suffering from dementia-related illnesses have a higher than average rate of sleep disorders. These neurological illnesses affect the brain in ways that may alter how the body controls the sleep cycle. Wakefulness, early waking, and “sundowning” are often the result. (Sundowning is a term used to describe the agitation and sometimes aggressive evening behavior of those with dementia.)
  • 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.

Aging and Sleep

The Impact of Diet on Sleep

It’s no secret that diet can influence and impact all aspects of health from energy levels to immunity. However, it becomes even more important for the elderly who face so many challenges to their sleep quality.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition explored the relationship between dietary diversity, sleep quality, and the mortality rates of elderly individuals. Participants who slept less than the recommended seven hours ate a smaller variety of foods and reported poorer perceived health. Both men and women showed an improvement in their sleep quality when they ate a more diverse diet, but the correlation between the two was significantly higher for women. In short, diet plays a major role even in sleep and human aging.

But what does it mean to eat a diverse diet?

Diet consists of a combination of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. When it comes to the elderly, a Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve sleep quality and overall health. This kind of diet is largely plant-based, involving a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, whole-grain bread, seeds, and legumes. A small amount of protein comes from fish and seafood, both of which are low in unhealthy fats. While even smaller amounts of poultry, eggs, and milk products are also included, this type of diet avoids red meat and processed sugars.

There’s evidence that a diet high in complex carbohydrates, like the Mediterranean diet, can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. Other research suggests that adding in healthy proteins, like the fish, seafood, and limited poultry, can reduce instances of nighttime wakefulness.

However, it’s not just what is eaten that can influence sleep and aging and the success of the sleep cycle, but when.

Using Meal Timing to Improve Sleep

The types of foods eaten create the building blocks to better health, but when it comes to the sleep cycle, the timing of those foods can be just as important. While sunlight plays the largest role in the timing of the sleep cycle, the body uses other factors such as meal timing to sync the sleep cycle with an individual’s preferred schedule.

While we can’t directly influence sleep stages and aging can disrupt normal sleeping patterns, eating meals at a consistent schedule is key to helping the sleep cycle stay on track. If meals are delayed, key factors like blood glucose levels and changes in adipose tissue can alter the timing of the sleep cycle. The body tries to follow individual needs, but if the timing of those needs continually change, it cannot adjust appropriately. Sleep problems can result because the brain doesn’t release sleep hormones on a consistent schedule.

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

The timing and duration of the sleep cycle are highly responsive to habits and behaviors, which gives the elderly the ability to increase their chances of getting a good night’s rest. It may take a few changes in habits and time for the body to adjust, but if it helps achieve sufficient sleep, it’s worth the effort.

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 rid themselves of lack of sleep and premature aging:

  1. Stick to a regular sleep schedule
  2. Avoid afternoon naps
  3. Manage your stress
  4. Be active for at least 30 minutes each day
  5. Don’t drink caffeine or eat heavy meals before sleep
  6. Choose the right mattress—one that’s not too firm but provides good support
  7. Improve your sleep environment by keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool
  8. Opt for bed sheets made of natural fibers that allow for maximum breathability
  9. Have a relaxing bedtime routine—for instance, take a warm bath before sleep
  10. Avoid looking at screens at night and read by a dim light
  11. Increase natural light exposure during the day to help the body regulate sleep hormones
  12. Consider natural sleep aids such as valerian root or lavender
  13. If you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed and try again later

Aging and Sleep

FAQs

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.

Conclusion

Care must be taken of the body at all stages of life. In the later years, the quality and consistency of that care make a big difference in the quality of life. Building habits that create the best possible circumstances for adequate sleep can help seniors get better rest. With better sleep comes the opportunity to take advantage of all that life still has to offer.

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1 comment

Alexander Jacques Sabucido May 6, 2019 - 2:28 am

Our sleeping hours depends on our age the more we get older the less hours we need to sleep.

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