How Your Sleep Changes As You Age

Close up of happy loving senior couple relaxing in bed.As adults enter into their golden years, they’ve to put up with a lot of changes. For women, they first need to get through a change that appears so great it’s simply called The Change. For both sexes, they need to get to grips with the physical and mental changes that can occur during this time. Whether it’s problems with short-term memory, stiff joints or having to get up at least twice during the night for the bathroom, the aging process can be a hard one to handle.

Leaning into the change

The best way to age is with grace. By keeping active in your body, by challenging your mind and by looking after your general health as best you can. One of the best ways you can do this – in addition to diet and exercise – is to get better sleep.

Because sleep can be the difference between health and illness; no matter what age you are. Staying rested boosts your immune, digestive and circulatory systems while giving you the energy you need to stay fit and healthy. While being sleep deprived depletes these energy sources, leaving you feeling irritable and lethargic, more prone to a range of physical and mental conditions that can hit you even harder in your senior years.

Knowing how much to get

But how much sleep should you be getting at this time? Well, according to the National Sleep Foundation, more than you might think. Because adults need 7–9 hours sleep, whereas seniors (those over 65 years) are recommended to have only one hour less; 7–8 hours, to be precise. The NSF says that 5–6 hours or 9 hours may be appropriate but that anything under 5 hours or over 9 hours is not advised.

If you fall into the over 65s category, this may come as a surprise to you. Because it’s likely that achieving even 5 hours’ sleep feels like a rare occurrence. Instead you wake up at 4am and, unable to fall back asleep, simply get up then or read until morning. It can be quite frustrating. And unlike common misconceptions might lead you to believe, your sleep needs do not change dramatically as you get older. You may have more difficulty in falling asleep or in staying asleep, but that doesn’t mean you need less of the snoozy stuff.

alarm clock next to a pair of reading glassesChanging patterns

Specialists call our sleeping patterns our “sleep architecture”. And it’s common for this makeup to change as we age, which can lead to difficulty in getting to sleep. The thing is, sleep occurs in multiple stages; the dreamless periods of light and deep sleep, plus the periods of active dreaming (or REM sleep). It has been found that older people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep; that’s why they might wake up more easily.

A slight adjustment

So how can you get deeper sleep?

Well, if you find yourself waking far, far too early – like in the middle of the night – it could be down to your usual bedtime, the one you’ve stuck to for years despite getting older. So you can combat this middle-of-the-night waking simply by going to bed slightly later.

For instance, if you start going to bed at 10pm instead of 9pm and get your recommended 8 hours in, that means waking at 6am will be a far more reasonable time to start your day! It might not work overnight; in fact, it might take a while to get used to the new timings… but stick to it and see the difference that a slight adjustment to your sleep schedule can make!

Pay attention to your rhythm

Our circadian rhythms are like our internal body clock. They operate 24 hours a day, in sleep/wake cycles that respond to factors such as light and time; ie as darkness falls, we become drowsy and as the sun rises, we become more alert.

At least, that’s how it should work. When our circadian rhythms are working properly, we should really notice these rises and dips into wakefulness and sleepiness (because, for instance, the biggest dip should occur between 2am and 4am, when we’re normally asleep). But things like looking at screens before bedtime can disrupt our circadian rhythms, as the blue light that our devices emit can trick our minds into thinking that it’s daytime and that we need to be alert.

So to sleep better at night, you should take note of your circadian rhythms. When it’s bright, that’s when you should get up, when it’s dark, you should be getting ready for sleep (not embarking on a TV-watching marathon).

senior woman sleeping in a bed with white blankets and pillowsHowever, bear in mind that seniors tend to experience a change in these circadian rhythms anyway, becoming sleepier in the early evenings and thus waking much earlier in the morning. However, by ‘tricking’ these rhythms slightly, ie by pushing bedtime back until later as mentioned above, you can avoid waking too early. And you can get around feeling overly drowsy in the evening by taking an afternoon nap instead – it’s called a “power nap” for good reason!

Other factors to consider

As well as paying attention to recommended sleeping times and changes in circadian rhythms, you should make sure that you’re sleeping on something as supportive as possible. This will prevent aches and pains from keeping you awake, or a bad back getting worse from a too-soft foundation. You’ll sleep better and as result, you’ll be able to face the world with a positive attitude come morning!

Remember, no matter what age you are, or how your sleep might change, it’s important that you get enough of it on a continuous basis. So, for the sake of your health and your happiness, get a good night’s sleep… tonight, tomorrow, and every night thereafter.

About the Author:

Hi, I’m Sarah. I lead a pretty active life yet sleep is something that fascinates me, too. I know how important is is to people’s mental and physical health and my goal is to educate the world on sleep-related matters, one post at a time! I truly believe that a well-rested society would be a happier one, and that we could all do with a little less stress in our lives. Since taking measures to improve my own sleep, I’ve never felt better in my day-to-day life; and I want to help others feel the same way.

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