Myth Busted! Growing Older Does Not Mean Saying Goodnight to Restful Sleep

Myth Busted! Growing Older Does Not Mean Saying Goodnight to Restful Sleep

Aging brings changes to your sleep quality & quantity – are you prepared?

Growing older is a gift, but it’s hard to look at it that way when you consider the widespread belief that a good night’s sleep is nearly impossible the older we get. While the quality and quantity of sleep may shift as we age, the reality is older people sleep just fine – and often better than their younger counterparts. 

Just take a look at the results from a Swiss sleep study: They are reassuring. Researchers from the University of Lausanne looked at participants ages 40 to 80 and found that though the elderly participants slept less, they reported better quality sleep. And they also felt more awake during daylight hours. What’s more, the data also found that older subjects complained significantly less about sleepiness lower than younger subjects. Take that, millennials! 

The less sunny results say that sleep latency – that’s the time it takes to fall asleep – increases with age. One study with adults over the age of 65 saw 36% of women and 13% of men take more than 30 minutes to nod off on a regular basis. Both sexes experience more nighttime restlessness as they age, including those midnight trips to the bathroom. Still, the bottom line is older adults function better during the day and feel more rested.

Blame fluctuating circadian rhythms

If you always wanted to be a morning person, but couldn’t quite manage it, you’ll be pleased to hear that there’s hope for morning liveliness in your golden years – even if you’ve been a long-time night owl. 

It has a fancy name – “advanced sleep phase syndrome.” That just means you’ll feel sleepy earlier and be ready to hit the hay earlier in the evening and subsequently get up earlier, too. It’s why grandma can watch the news at 6 p.m. and not at 11 p.m. 

But why the altered sleep schedule as we get older?

“Our chronorhythms shift as we age,” explains Dr. Michael Breus, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and a SleepScore Labs advisory board member, a.k.a. The Sleep Doctor. “Meaning that our body’s circadian rhythm moves to an earlier time. Old habits of going to bed at a particular time may be well ingrained in our evening. but if our body wants to walk up earlier (due to a shift in core body temperature which changes melatonin production), we will get less sleep.” 

Complicating matters is the fact melatonin levels dwindle with age, further disrupting the sleep-wake cycle. So rather than fight against your body pushing you to wake up earlier, go with the flow. Breus suggests going to bed earlier and tracking your sleep with a device like the S+ Sleep Sensor to really understand the change in total sleep time and quality. 

Paying attention to those two areas is especially important for older adults. Not sleeping well can cause a depressed mood and lead to attention and memory problems, more nighttime falls, excessive daytime sleepiness and an increased reliance of over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids.

Potential challenges of sleep in later years of life

Research says that our need for sleep remains fairly constant during adulthood. Yet many older people struggle. One common reason is snoring. An estimated 90 million Americans experience disruption due to snoring. Thirty-seven million are habitual snorers. Unfortunately, it’s a condition that worsens with age – underscoring the need for treatment. 

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that poor sleep is a normal part of aging. It’s not. If you’re experiencing problems, talk to your doctor – or a specialty sleep doctor. Not sleeping well may be an important clue that might indicate an underlying condition, from renal failure and respiratory diseases to asthma and immune disorders. 

Another good reason to book an appointment? Do a thorough review of any medicine you’re taking. Some may be interfering with your sleep. Breus says that discussing a reduction in non-essential medicine can be help since some over-the-counter medicines can affect sleep depth. “This should done only upon on a doctor’s advice,” he cautions.