Aging and Sleep

Changes in sleeping patterns are a normal part of the aging process. One aspect of this progression is that it might be more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep than it was at a younger age. Contrary to popular belief, sleep needs don’t decline as a person ages, they actually remain constant throughout adulthood. No matter your age, sleep is essential to physical health and emotional well-being. For older adults, sleep is important to protect memory formation, improve concentration and allow the body to repair any cell damage. Sleep also refreshes the immune system in order to help prevent diseases and disorders.

Older adults who suffer from sleep disturbances are more likely to have chronic physical and psychiatric illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, weight problems and even certain cancers. It is also probably for the elderly to have attention and memory problems in addition to excessive daytime sleepiness. The likelihood of suffering nighttime falls and having an increased sensitivity to pain is higher for older adults who don’t get adequate sleep.

Changes in what specialists call “sleep architecture,” or sleep patterns, change as we age which, in turn, may contribute to problems sleeping. Sleep has multiple stages, such as the dreamless period of light or deep sleep and occasional periods of REM sleep, known as ‘active dreaming’. Older people usually spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep rather than deep sleep.

Some older adults may feel less satisfied with their sleep and tired during the daytime. According to research on sleep habits, Americans take longer to fall asleep, have less REM sleep and wake up more frequently during the night as they age. The onset of sleep disorders also increases with age, which may be partially attributed to the fact that the elderly tend to have more physical and psychiatric illnesses and medications used to treat them.

Circadian rhythms, which set the sleep wake/cycle and other bodily functions, are also affected in older adults. One example of this is the fact that older people usually become sleepier earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning in comparison to younger adults – a pattern called ‘advanced sleep phase syndrome’. Although the reason for these changes in sleep and circadian rhythms are not clearly understood, many researchers think it has to do with light exposure. Treatment options for this condition include bright light therapy. Also known as 'phototherapy' or 'heliotherapy', bright light therapy patients exposes the patient to high-intensity light for about 30-60 minutes with the aim to advance or delay sleep.

Insomnia in the Elderly

Insomnia is also more common in older adults. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2003 Sleep in America poll found that 44 percent of older people experience symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights per week. Insomnia may be acute or chronic, depending on the duration. Often times it can be associated with an underlying cause such as a medical or psychiatric illness.

Aging also brings about increased incidences of chronic medical problems. For some people, multiple medications for various conditions can make sleep worse. Nearly one-quarter of adults between the ages of 65 and 84 have been diagnosed with four or more medical conditions, and 80 percent of them reported having sleep problems. Sleep problems are more common in people with poor health and chronic medical conditions. One example is hypertension (high blood pressure), which is associated with snoring, obstructive sleep apnea and heart failure. Another example is menopause, which can lead to sleep disturbances due to hot flashes, decreasing hormone levels and changes in breathing.

Symptoms for Sleep Disorders in the Elderly

Some of the most common causes for insomnia in the elderly include:

  • Poor sleep habits/or environment - By practicing good sleep hygiene, you can combat common causes of insomnia.
  • Pain or medical illness - Pain is one of the top sleep stealers. Many conditions cause pain and can keep you from getting adequate sleep, such as arthritis, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, heartburn, menopause, and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Medications - Older people generally take more medication than younger adults. The combinations of drugs used may produce unpleasant side effects that impair sleep or stimulate wakefulness.
  • Psychological stress of psychiatric illness - Significant life changes happen to older adults, including the death of loved ones or moving to a nursing home. Anxiety or depression can keep you awake which can cause a vicious cycle of more anxiety and depression.

If you are interested in finding out more about how aging can affect sleep quality, call The Los Angeles Sleep Study Institute at 1-855-690-0563 and one of our representatives will be happy to answer any of your questions.