We all need a good night’s sleep, regardless of age! Admit it, you feel better when you’ve slept at least seven hours. You need this amount of sleep to feel your best mentally and physically, but studies also link poor quality sleep and a lack of adequate sleep with a higher risk of health conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and mental health issues. But sleep architecture, the structure of sleep, changes as we age. Here’s how sleep changes with age.
Reduced Slow Wave Sleep
We cycle through various sleep stages several times during the night. During most of your sleep time, you’re in NREM sleep, also known as non-rapid eye movement sleep. This is the sleep stage you enter when you first fall asleep. NREM sleep has four stages or levels and is the most restful portion of the sleep cycle. It’s also when most cell and tissue repair occur and the time that your brain releases the most growth hormone. That’s important for muscle repair and maintaining muscle and bone mass.
The other quarter of the time you’re asleep, you spend in REM or rapid-eye-movement sleep. You don’t enter this stage until about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and you will enter it several times during the night. Dreams occur during REM sleep but may also occur during certain phases of NREM sleep.
As we age, we spend less time in NREM sleep, especially a phase of NREM sleep called slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage, and the stage in which you see a characteristic brain wave called a delta wave. Why is this stage important? It’s during slow-wave sleep that you transfer the information you learned during the day to long-term storage. So, disruptions in this stage of sleep can lead to memory disturbances. Plus, your body enters a deep state of rest during slow-wave sleep as blood pressure, temperature and heart rate drop to their lowest levels and your muscles are most relaxed.
Longer Time to Fall Asleep
The time it takes to fall asleep is called sleep latency. If you find that it takes longer to drift off to sleep than it did a decade ago, it’s not your imagination! As we age, sleep latency lengthens. Therefore, you spend more time lying in bed waiting for sleep to sweep over you. As with most aspects of sleep, researchers don’t have a firm grasp on why sleep latency increases with age.
Are there solutions to long sleep latency? If you have problems falling asleep, a warm bath may help. A review of over 5,000 studies found that a short bath in water at around 105 degrees Fahrenheit improves sleep quality. If you enjoy a hot bath regularly, it signals your body that it’s time to relax and unwind.
More Frequent Nighttime Awakenings
What could be more frustrating than waking up multiple times during the night and then struggle to fall back to sleep? That’s the reality for millions of people and frequent awakenings during the night become more common with age. Although waking up more often during the night comes with normal aging, it can also be a sign of sleep apnea, a condition where breathing stops for 10 to 30 seconds at a time during the night, sometimes up to 100 times per night. Another sign of sleep apnea is snoring and daytime sleepiness. If you notice a sudden change in your sleep patterns or a family member says you snore frequently, get it checked out. Sleep apnea increases the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Circadian Rhythm Changes
Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles inherent to each organism. During each 24-hour cycle, events such as hormone release, tissue repair, and other functions happen at certain times during each 24-hour cycle. The rhythms are set by exposing your eyes to light and the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. Ideally, you should expose your eyes to light during the day and complete darkness at night. Lifestyle changes such as night shifts where your eyes see light at night can disrupt circadian rhythms. Such disruptions are linked with health problems, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer.
Aging can disrupt circadian rhythms and your normal sleep-wake cycle too, leading to sleep problems. One reason is that with age the pineal gland in your brain produces less melatonin, the master hormonal regulator of your circadian rhythms. Small steps you can take to reset your circadian rhythms is to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
Give the devices a break too! Avoid exposing your eyes to blue light within 2 hours of bedtime. If you must use your device, switch it to nighttime mode after 7:00 p.m. This shifts the frequency of light away from the blue end of the spectrum and toward the red. In the morning, open the curtains as early as possible and let your eyes soak up natural light. If possible, eat your biggest meal early in the day and eat a light, early dinner. Eating later and nighttime snacking can shift your circadian rhythms so that your body goes into sleep mode later.
The Bottom Line
These sleep changes are only generalizations. As with most aspects of physiological function, there’s individual variability. Sleep patterns often change after the age of 50 but there are people in the latter decades of life that don’t experience significant sleep disruptions and continue to get a good night’s sleep. However, you’re more likely to enjoy a good night’s sleep if you normalize your circadian rhythm, stay physically active, and manage stress. Morning or afternoon exercise works best for optimizing sleep. If you have sleep disturbances, see your doctor. Health problems, stress, and medications can make sleep problems worse, but hold off on sleep medications. They won’t solve the underlying problem and can be addictive.
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- National Sleep Foundation. “How Exercise Affects Sleep Quality”