Home / Blog September 20, 2022

Aging and Sleep: Do Older Adults Need Less Sleep?

Deep, restorative sleep remains important as we age. But for some adults, aging makes it harder to rest well. What can seniors do to improve their quality of sleep? Read on to learn some tips and tricks informed by sleep science!

sleep and aging

Bearassentials

Contrary to popular belief, older adults still need at least 7 hours of sleep a day.

People who get enough sleep are less likely to develop dementia.

There are natural interventions that can help seniors get deep, restful sleep. 

Did you know?
A poor night’s sleep increases the production of beta-amyloid, the protein marker for Alzheimer’s disease.

It may seem like people need less sleep the older they get. After all, most of us no longer need an afternoon nap to keep us from getting crabby during the day … but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help! The truth is, deep and restful shuteye remains crucial even later in life. And the minimum of seven hours of sleep at night (as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation) still stands - even for older adults.

Sleep helps the body rest and restore tissues. As we sleep, memories are consolidated and stored, hormones are regulated, and waste is more efficiently removed. This is why lack of sleep can have damaging effects.

So do we experience more sleep problems in older age? If so, what can we do to protect our sleep? Can we really slow down the effects of aging on sleep? Read on to learn more.

sleep and aging

What are the Effects of Sleep Deprivation?

A vast body of research shows that lack of sleep can speed up aging. Even just one night of insufficient sleep can increase cellular aging in older adults, according to a UCLA study.

The study defined insufficient sleep as anything below 7 hours. Subjects aged 61-86 years old were allowed 4 hours of sleep, from 3 am to 7 am. The next day, researchers found DNA Damage Response (DDR) and senescence-associated secretory phenotypes (SASP) markers in the blood samples of the respondents. This is a sign that cells were negatively affected by the lack of sleep.

Chronic lack of sleep does more than speed up the appearance of gray hair and wrinkles. It can also lead to diseases like cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, weakened immune system, and DNA damage. Your body depends on sleep to stay healthy!

Apart from this, brain studies also show that poor sleep worsens brain performance and function in older people. And people who get enough sleep have a lower risk of developing dementia. A little extra investment in your sleep routine might go a long way for your physical and mental health.

What Causes Poor Sleep in Older Adults?

Poor sleep as we age is a result of many factors, some of which are wrapped up in the body’s natural aging process:

Changing body clock

As we age, our body clock also changes. Older people tend to want to sleep earlier at night and wake up early in the morning. This may be a result of the deterioration of the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is responsible for our circadian rhythms.

Our circadian rhythms are also influenced by daylight exposure. Unfortunately, the elderly tend to be exposed to less daylight, averaging only about one hour per day. Mobility issues and assisted living arrangements sometimes contribute to seniors spending less time in the sunshine.

Aging brain

As the brain ages, it has more trouble generating the slow brain waves needed for a restful and restorative sleep. It also becomes more difficult for it to generate the neurochemicals needed to transition from sleep to wakefulness.

As it turns out, the regions of the brain that deteriorate earliest are the ones responsible for deep sleep. So if you’re finding it harder to sleep as the years go by, this may be the simplest reason why.

how to sleep with age

Illnesses and medication

Apart from the body's natural aging, illnesses and medication also interfere with sleep, not to mention the general aches and pains we might start feeling in our later years. Common sleep disorders experienced by older adults include.

  1. Insomnia – the persistent difficulty to fall and to be asleep. About 10-30% of adults struggle with insomnia.
  2. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) – a tingling sensation that runs across the legs, especially at night. Chances of having it increase with age, with about 10-35% of seniors living with RLS.
  3. Sleep apnea – a disorder characterized by extended pauses in breath during sleep. 

Conditions that don’t directly disrupt sleep, such as arthritis and frequent urination, can still make it harder to rest by causing you to wake up more during the night. Even the simple stress from increased doctor visits and shifting treatment plans can be a real sleep stealer.

How Can Seniors Get Better Sleep?

All these problems may lead seniors to reach for sleeping pills in pursuit of a good night’s sleep. However, experts warn that sleeping pills are a poor substitute for natural sleep. There are a range of sleep aids on the market, and while they all work differently, most of them aren’t a permanent solution and should not be taken without the advice of a doctor. In fact, many sleeping pills can lead to serious issues like dependence or addiction.

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Natural ways to nod off

So as a first step, it makes sense to turn to natural sleeping interventions to improve your quality of sleep. The good news is, many of these treatments are simple and effective! Here are some tips seniors can use to catch those elusive zzzs:

  1. Exercise. Apart from lowering risk for diseases, exercising also gives you sound and restful sleep. It lowers the levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, helping you unwind a little better by the end of the day.
  2. Cut back on the caffeine. It takes around 5-6 hours for the effects of caffeine to leave your body, so that afternoon latte might be affecting bedtime more than you think. You may also want to avoid alcohol and tobacco before bedtime, since they can interrupt sleep, too.
  3. Avoid using smartphones, laptops, and TV before bedtime. The blue light from the screen messes with our melatonin levels, making it harder to rest.
  4. Maintain a regular sleep schedule (even on the weekends!) to train your body to fall asleep during certain hours. Keeping a “sleep diary” where you track your sleeping habits can be a great way to become more mindful of this.
  5. Create a bedtime routine you really like! You can include a warm bath or mindfulness practices like meditation and breathwork to calm your body and mind. When you have predictable activities to look forward to at bedtime, it often becomes easier to relax.
  6. Keep your sleeping environment safe. As we age, we become more prone to accidents, and this can be a big source of nighttime stress. It’s a good idea to remove any sharp objects and furniture from the route connecting your bedroom to your bathroom, and place lamps or night lights in any areas you use at night. A cell phone with a blue light filter at hand can also increase your safety. Add your closest family members and friends to the speed dial to be sure that whenever you need assistance, it is available. Peace of mind goes a long way for a good night’s sleep.
  7. Use a weighted blanket so it’s easier to doze off. The added weight of these calming blankets promotes relaxation and sleep, which can help address many of the sleep problems seniors struggle with. Some people also find that a weighted blanket for restless leg syndrome helps improve their symptoms. If you’re interested in trying a weighted blanket, but not sure where to start, you can check out our guide for more detailed info. 

Written by:

dr andras

Dr. Andras Horvath
Dr. Andras Horvath is a clinical neuroscientist who has worked at several international institutions in the United States, Switzerland, Portugal, and Belgium. He is currently based at Semmelweis University where he investigates the impact of sleep changes on cognitive performance, mood, anxiety, and memory.