Sleep In the Elderly

Along with the physical changes that occur as we get older, changes to our sleep patterns are a part of the normal aging process. As people age they tend to have a harder time falling asleep and more trouble staying asleep than when they were younger. It is a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age. In fact, research demonstrates that our sleep needs remain constant throughout adulthood. So, why do seniors frequently have difficulty sleeping? One factor is that sleep naturally becomes lighter as we get older. Seniors spend less time in deep sleep and therefore are more prone to waking, and are likely to feel less refreshed in the morning. There are also changes to the sleep-wake circadian rhythm. For example, older adults tend to become sleepier in the early evening and wake earlier in the morning compared to younger adults.  When this pattern becomes problematic, it is called advanced sleep phase syndrome. This shift in the sleep-wake circadian rhythm at night may also be accompanied by a greater tendency for napping in the afternoon.

In addition to the natural changes in sleep that occur as we get older there are a number of other sleep disorders and medical conditions that that more frequently occur in older adults that can negatively impact sleep and daytime alertness. For example, the prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome are more commonly observed in older adults and both conditions can contribute to symptoms of insomnia or unrefreshing sleep. The prevalence of insomnia increases with age. It has been reported that 44% of older persons experience one or more of the nighttime symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights per week or more. Insomnia symptoms in the elderly may include difficulty falling asleep, staying as asleep, and waking up earlier in the morning than preferred.

As we age, there is an increased incidence of medical problems, which are often chronic. In general, people with poor health or chronic medical conditions have more sleep problems. Moreover many of the medications used to treat these medical conditions can also contribute to sleeplessness.

Many older adults notice that they do not sleep as well as they did when they were in their 30s and 40s and this can be a source of distress. It is important, therefore, to determine the extent to which these changes might due to the process of natural aging, versus other factors. The latter may be due to factors that are highly treatable.

Sleep Topics

Sleep Basics

Children's Sleep

Restless Leg Syndrome


Sleep in Elderly

Womens' Sleep




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