How Age Affects Your Sleep

September 14, 2018

How Age Affects Your Sleep

True or false?

Compared to younger individuals, older adults need less sleep?

If you answered true, you are incorrect! Older adults need an average of 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night - the same as their younger counterparts. Contrary to many misconceptions, the amount of sleep required to stay healthy does not decrease as we age. However, it may be a challenge to obtain all those hours all in a night.

There are notable changes to our sleep as we get older. 50-60% of older adults report they have problems sleeping. In addition to changes in how much we sleep, our patterns of sleep also change. 

As we age, our bodies start to produce less melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that controls the body's natural sleep/wake cycle. It is released in high doses into the blood in the evening to help you feel sleepy and will remain high until the morning. 

As we age, we experience a shift in our internal clock and how our body regulates sleep. The window in which our internal clock enables sleep narrows. This can mean we fall asleep earlier in the evening and wake up much earlier than we want to.

Older adults spend less time in rapid-eye-movement (REM) deep sleep and more time in non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep, specifically in the N1 stage, the lightest phase of sleep.  This means, as we get older, we may experience less satisfying sleep.

Insomnia is common in adults 60 and older. Insomnia includes trouble falling asleep, waking up several times a night or waking up too early altogether. This can be due to the lack of time spent in REM sleep and also as a side effect caused by other chronic conditions such as arthritis. 

The most common sleep disorders that affect ageing adults include Sleep Apnea and Restless Leg Syndrome. Sleep Apnea causes you to momentarily stop breathing - sometimes dozens of times an hour - which prevents the body from entering a deepened state of sleep. Restless leg syndrome is an uncomfortable and uncontrollable leg tingling sensation while you're trying to fall asleep.

Sleep problems often arise, go undiagnosed and untreated simply because many of us believe sleep problems are a normal part of ageing. Luckily, by prioritizing underlying medical conditions, understanding how our sleep changes, and strategizing a good sleep routine and environment, we can all positively improve sleep. It's not all bad news when we age. Sleep improves with retirement. A French study found people were 26% less likely to report sleep problems in the first 7 years of retirement. Vive la difference!

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