Your sleeping patterns have changed a lot throughout your life. You started out spending up to 20 hours a day asleep, and as you grew up, you gradually slept less and less. By the time you hit adulthood, you only needed seven to eight hours of sleep to face the day. Sleep patterns continue to change in the later years — and not always in ways we find convenient.
Some of these changes are natural, but others stem from underlying disorders. We’ll look at how sleep patterns change with age, and sleep improvement tips for seniors that can help you get a better night’s rest.
How Sleep Patterns Change With Age
There is a misconception that seniors require more hours of sleep each night than younger adults. In truth, most older adults can still get by on the standard seven to eight hours.
The big difference is this: the older you get, the harder it is to get the requisite seven hours of sleep in one long stretch.
One study found that people over the age of 60 can have up to 150 episodes of brief wakefulness in one night compared to the usual five episodes of younger adults. You won’t recall each one of these episodes, but you’ll feel the effect of them in the morning. Seniors are also more likely to wake up to use the bathroom at least once, which also takes away from their nightly rest.
Since they aren’t bound to the demands of a strict work schedule, seniors tend to make up for this loss of sleep with midday naps. That’s why some people assume that older folks need more sleep than their younger kin.
Those are changes to sleep patterns that come naturally with age. However, it is common for adults over 60 to have other sleep-related problems as well.
Why Some Seniors Suffer From Insomnia
The most common sleep-related complaint seniors have is insomnia: difficulty falling asleep or sleeping through the night or waking up earlier than desired.
Insomnia can be a symptom of a large number of medical conditions, like asthma, heart disease, arthritis, chronic pain, and major depression. It can also be linked to side effects of medication or alcohol use.
Some seniors also suffer from sleep disorders which interfere with their ability to have restful, healthy sleep. Not all sleep disorders come with clear physical symptoms, and they are often misdiagnosed or overshadowed by the individual’s other health conditioners.
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): the most common sleep disorder, OSA (often simply called sleep apnea) occurs when the tissue at the back of the throat obstructs the flow of air to the lungs during sleep. The biggest warning sign is loud snoring accompanied by snorts and gasps for air.
- Central sleep apnea (CSA): shortness of breath that occurs when the brain fails to breathe during sleep, which shows as frequent sighing or shallow breaths during sleep. CSA is most common in older people with heart disease.
- Advanced sleep phase syndrome: a pattern of going to bed early and waking up early that makes it difficult to sustain a normal social life.
- Periodic limb movement disorder: common in people over 60 years of age, this disorder involves episodes of repetitive, uncontrollable flexing or tightening of the muscles during the night.
- Restless legs syndrome: an uncomfortable prickling sensation in the legs that can only be relieved by moving, which results in disturbed sleep.
- Rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder: a form of sleepwalking that is most common in men over 50.
If you have been unable to sleep well for a month or more, it’s time to bring these concerns the doctor, as sleep disorders are potentially serious conditions that can be diagnosed and treated.
Sleep Improvement Tips for Seniors
Small changes to your routine and surroundings can make a big difference in your quality of sleep. These tips can help seniors sleep longer and feel more rested.
- Be more active during the day. People who get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week sleep much better and feel more alert the next day. That’s the finding of a study that included participants from age 18 all the way to 85. If you’re looking for guidance, we have published previous blog posts on ways seniors can get active and tips for exercising safely during the summer.
- Limit naps during the day. Taking a nap can help you feel awake and refreshed, but napping for too long or too late in the day can hinder that night’s rest. Try not to sleep for more than half an hour, and get your nap in before 3PM.
- Get some sunlight every day. Being in the sun helps your body’s internal clock maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle, which makes it easier to fall asleep at night. You don’t have to expose your skin to the sun — it’s your eyes that send the signal to your brain, so sitting by a sunny window can be enough to help.
- Cut down on nighttime noise. Since seniors tend to be light sleepers, minimize noise at night as much as possible. Heavy curtains can help dampen the sound of noisy neighbours, and a white noise generator can also help to drown out ambient sounds.
- Adjust the thermostat to make the bedroom cooler. The ideal room temperature for a good night’s sleep is between 15 and 19°C (60-67°F). Keeping the room cool and comfortable can make for a much more satisfying rest.
- Dim any ambient lights. Just as it’s good to get sunlight during the day, it’s important to turn out the lights when it’s bedtime. Close the curtains, cover up that glowing alarm clock and be sure to turn off electronics at least an hour before going to bed.
- Keep a tight steady sleep schedule. Turning in to bed and waking up at the same time each day sets your body’s internal clock to become tired on schedule. Sticking to the same routine will help your body get adjusted.