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Sleep and Aging: Understanding Insomnia and Other Sleep Disorders in the Elderly


On average we spend about a third of our lives sleeping. It is likely no surprise that research links poor sleep with a multitude of health problems. That seems particularly true as we get older as research reports that over half the elderly population experience sleep difficulties.

Sleep and aging should be of great interest to us all since we are all getting older. If we can understand the importance of sleep and its effect on us, we would be more willing to invest in quality sleep.

In this article, you will learn some basic facts about insomnia and how sleep patterns change with advancing age. Yet most of all you will learn about what you can do to have better quality sleep and a better quality of life, especially if you are an older person.

What Is Normal Sleep?

Normal sleep has several stages, each leading to the next. In one night, you will cycle through these stages several times. There are 2 basic types of sleep. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.

There are 3 specific stages of non-REM sleep followed by REM sleep. As you cycle through these stages you will spend longer in REM sleep each time. Interestingly, it is the third stage of non-REM sleep that is ‘deep’ sleep and is what makes us feel like we have had a good sleep by the morning.

It is noteworthy, this type of ‘deep’ sleep occurs more in the first half of the night. Getting to bed late, or later than normal will cause you to lose out on this type of sleep.

Sleep and Aging – What Changes?

Everybody has a naturally occurring cycle within their body that operates on a 24-hour rhythm. This is called your circadian rhythm. Its control center is in part of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN).

This natural rhythm controls many functions within your body including your sleep cycle. However, there are also external factors that influence sleep such as the amount of light, eating food, and so forth. Ideally, internal and external triggers of sleep are synchronized.

In the elderly, it is common for dysynchrony to develop between the internal sleep clock and external environmental triggers. One of the significant causes of this is changes in the elderly brain that controls the circadian rhythm.

Less Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone that responds to light and is an important trigger in telling your body the day is ending and the nighttime is beginning. People produce less melatonin as they get older. Plus changes to their routines in life may mean that older people are less exposed to adequate light throughout the day.

Increased Medication

Another significant factor as to why older people suffer from sleep difficulties is the multitude of medications that they may need to take to treat various geriatric problems. These medications disrupt physiological and hormonal functions within the body that impact their circadian rhythm.

Primary Sleep Disorders

Some primary sleep disorders directly affect sleep in elderly people. You can think of these as external factors that disrupt falling asleep, remaining asleep, and getting adequate benefits from sleep.

Sleep Apnea

This is a sleep disorder that affects your breathing. During the night your breathing slows down along with your heartbeat as the body relaxes. However, this disorder causes your breathing to pause at times.

This can be for a few seconds or longer. This ‘pause’ will repeat itself throughout the night. That leads to reduced oxygen and feeling tired in the morning.

There are different types of sleep apnea depending on the cause. A common symptom is snoring. Not every snorer has sleep apnea but if you are snoring regularly and do not feel you are getting the rest you should have then it could be a sign of this sleep disorder.

The prevalence of sleep apnea increases with age. A decline in mental function combined with sleep apnea may indicate the onset of dementia. If you think you have sleep apnea then seek your doctor’s advice.

Restless Leg Syndrome

This is exactly what it says on the tin. People with Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) experience involuntary leg movements or a strong sensation to move their leg because of an uncomfortable feeling.

This can make it hard to get to sleep, or when you are just going off to sleep, it can then wake you up again. It is uncomfortable and frustrating for the person. The strange thing about this disorder is that the cause is not known.

As many as 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 years experience this disorder. If you are one of them, the best you can do is make sure you adopt good sleeping habits like the ones mentioned below.

Tips for Improving Your Sleep

Thankfully there are many things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep. For example, you should make your sleep part of your routine. Go to bed at the same time and most importantly, get up at the same time.

Before bed, make sure you relax your mind and body and do not stimulate with exercise or TV, at least an hour or two before going to bed. Avoid eating late.

Remember that alcohol sedates, it does not lead to quality sleep. In fact, you are more likely to wake up after alcohol.

Another important factor you can control is your bed itself. You can get a specially designed mattress for seniors that offers additional support and has memory technology so that it will conform to the contours of your body.

The Basics of Sleep and Aging

In this article, you have read the basics of sleep and aging. The key take-home is that you want to limit any negative external factors on your sleep as much as possible. Being ‘protective’ about your sleep will help you get quality sleep and experience better health.

Following the tips in this article is a good starting point if you are experiencing trouble with your sleep. Don’t stop reading here, check out other helpful articles on our site that can guide you in life as you experience getting older.