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Sleep Issues in Older Adults

How Does Aging Affect Sleep


As we age our sleep patterns can be affected by several physical factors, as well as our state of mind. There is a common belief that older adults don’t require as much sleep, and while many people may have a hard time getting the sleep they need, it doesn’t mean their bodies don’t require as much. We all feel better when we’ve had a good night’s sleep. Since there are often health problems that arise due to lack of adequate sleep, it is crucial to understand the role sleep plays in our well-being.


Physical factors that affect sleep can include a shift in circadian rhythms, which govern our internal clocks. When these rhythms are interrupted it may result in increased tiredness, and a feeling of malaise. Additionally, our sleep architecture often changes as we age. This refers to how we cycle through the four different stages of sleep. In a typical night we cycle through four to six sleep cycles of varying lengths. Individual’s sleep cycles can vary from night to night, affected by factors including recent sleep patterns and alcohol consumption.


There may also be changes in hormone production, and this can contribute to sleep disruption. The body secretes less melatonin, which is normally produced in response to darkness, and this can hinder sleep. The side effects of medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, can also create sleep issues. Medications can cause daytime drowsiness, resulting in naps that interfere with nocturnal sleep, or they can keep us awake at night. The interaction of multiple medications can have unintended sleep consequences.


Psychological factors are very common. Anxiety is a major contributor to not sleeping well, and can lead to insomnia. Obviously chronic anxiety, depression and insomnia can have a very negative affect on all aspects of our lives. Most of us have had difficulty falling asleep, or are awakened at some point during the night, plagued by thoughts that prevent us from drifting into sleep. These thoughts feel tinged with extra anxiety during the night, as we don’t have the benefit of the distractions we have when we are awake.


Lifestyle changes are also big contributors to not getting enough sleep. Retirement can lead to a less structured sleep schedule, including daytime napping. As a result of retirement we may experience social isolation and a feeling of no longer being needed in the same way we were pre-retirement. Unless we create a renewed purpose for ourselves, the expanse of time can cause anxiety and restlessness.


What Can We Do


Exercise is one of the most obvious solutions, creating a physical and an emotional release. This is one of the best things we can do for our overall health, so it’s important to find a way to exercise that is enjoyable to ensure we do it consistently over time. Just knowing we’ve made the effort and followed through makes us feel better and diminishes anxiety.


Reducing screen time before bed has been shown to improve one’s ability to fall asleep. When waking in the middle of the night it is recommended that we not turn to our screens, as tempting as it may be.

To help fall asleep or get back to sleep, doing relaxation and mental exercises to distract us from our own thoughts can be helpful. For example, mentally re-visit places you’ve lived, or list things alphabetically (e.g. artists, actors, fruits).


Avoiding drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, or eating large late meals can improve chances of sleeping better.


Creating and sticking to a bedtime routine can set the tone for getting a more satisfying night’s sleep. Take a bath, read a book in bed (not on a device!) or listen to music.


Accept that sleep may not be quite what it used to be, and we won’t experience that blissful, forgetful sleep of earlier decades. However, we still get to relax, dream deliciously and recharge our bodies and our minds, as long as we get an adequate amount of sleep on a regular basis.


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