Getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of healthy aging, but sleep patterns change as people get older, interfering with the quality of our rest.
As people get older, their sleep patterns tend to change. Many older adults report being less satisfied with their sleep than they were when they were younger. But insomnia and other sleep problems are not a non-negotiable part of aging, and there are steps you can take to sleep better well into your later years.
Your sleep patterns are in part controlled by your body’s internal clock. This clock helps determine when you feel awake and when you feel sleepy. From infancy to old age, hormonal changes and natural changes in your body clock cause shifts in your sleep patterns.
These shifts are thought to be why older adults tend to go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier than younger people. They also may be the reason that older adults nap more during the day and awaken more frequently during the night, says Phil Gehrman, PhD, CBSM, clinical director of Penn Medicine’s Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Penn Sleep Center in Philadelphia.
Age-Related Sleep Problems
Lifestyle changes that often occur with aging can also create sleep problems in older adults:
- Health problems. Certain medical conditions related to aging can disturb sleep, says Dr. Gehrman. Older people are at an increased risk for obstructive sleep apnea, periodic limb movements, acid reflux, arthritis, chronic pain, and other ailments, all of which can alter sleep patterns.
- Changes in your schedule. After retirement, you tend to have fewer responsibilities and can enjoy a more relaxed daily schedule. While not having to keep a rigid routine is one of the perks of getting older, it can also disrupt your sleep patterns and put you at risk for insomnia.
- Less exercise. While some adults stay active throughout their lives, many of us tend to become less active as we age. A lack of regular exercise can make it harder for you to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.
- Nighttime waking. Natural changes in your body clock cause you to sleep “lighter” as you age. “Sleep definitely becomes fragmented as a function of age,” says Gehrman. Frequently waking up at night can lead to daytime sleepiness and problems with sleep.
- Stress and worry. Life events that are common among older people, such as the loss of a loved one or financial difficulties, can lead to a racing mind and excessive worry that can cause sleep problems.
By Krisha McCoy, MS – Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH