Is It Normal to Have Sleep Problems As You Get Older?


A woman in bed can't fall asleep. Is it normal to have sleep problems as you get older?

Sleep – it’s something most people don’t get enough of. According to a Gallup poll, 48% of people get less than 6 hours of sleep a night, well short of the recommended 7 to 8 hours. Why is the average American so sleep deprived? Living in a busy world with too many things to do sometimes means sleep time suffers. However, some people have sleep problems because they CAN’T sleep. These chronic insomnia sufferers lie awake unable to fall asleep or wake up in the middle of the night and can’t drift back into dreamland. What’s more, sleep problems become more common with age.

Why Quality Sleep is Important

Many of the chronic health problems that plague us as we age are worsened by lack of sleep. Inadequate sleep is linked with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and an increase in overall mortality. Some studies also link it to obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. No doubt, sleep is vital. The question is why does it become harder to sleep as you get older – and is it normal to have sleep issues?

Studies show that sleep patterns change with age. When you hit the second half of life, you might discover that you fall asleep more slowly and also that your “sleep architecture” changes. During the night, you experience various phases of sleep, including REM sleep, also known as rapid-eye-movement sleep, and three stages of non-REM sleep.

These cycles of REM and non-REM sleep repeat over and over throughout the night. REM sleep is when you’re most likely to dream. Stage 3 of non-REM sleep is called slow-wave sleep. It’s during this stage of sleep that you’re least likely to awaken if you hear a sound and it’s when you’re in the deepest sleep. You pass through each of these stages more than once during the night. Unfortunately, as you age, you experience less REM sleep as well as less stage 3 non-REM sleep. In fact, the elderly may experience no stage 3 sleep at all.

How can you explain these changes? Research links changes to a portion of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex with the age-related reduction in slow-wave sleep. This area of the brain is also involved with memory, thereby tying together age-related changes in sleep patterns and cognition.

In fact, studies now link poor sleep with the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, a marker of cognitive problems and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s during sleep that your brain clears these plaques. However, the more beta-amyloid plaques people have in their brains, the less deep sleep they experience. In fact, it’s not clear which comes first – do the plaques lead to sleep problems or do sleep problems promote plaque formation? What is clear is that there’s a link between sleep and cognition.

What if You Have Sleep Problems?

If you’re having problems sleeping, don’t assume it’s because you’re getting older. Get the problem checked out. Health problems like sleep apnea can reduce the quality of your sleep and you might not be aware that you have it. It’s especially important to get checked if you snore frequently. A variety of other health problems and even some medications can make it harder to sleep. So, if your sleep quality is declining, get a check-up. Also, ask your physician whether the medications you’re taking could be contributing to your sleep problems.

Next, take a closer look at your sleep habits. Do you work on an electronic device in the evening? Exposing your eyes to blue light from your iPhone, iPad, or other electronic devices can disrupt your sleep. Not surprising since blue light blocks the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. Plus, these devices can disrupt your body’s circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycle that directs bodily functions, including the timing of hormone release. The room you sleep in should be pitch black as well. Even small amounts of light can also reduce melatonin release.

What about your coffee drinking habits? A certain percentage of the population metabolizes caffeine slowly. If you’re a slow caffeine metabolizer, caffeine can stay in your system for up to ten hours. So, the caffeine from that early afternoon cup of coffee could keep you awake if you process caffeine at a snail’s pace. Try eliminating caffeinated beverages after your first-morning cup and see if it helps.

Is Your Bedroom Conducive to Sleep?

What about your sleeping environment? Studies show that people tend to sleep better in a room at around 65 degrees over a warmer one. Drop the temperature of your bedroom a few degrees and see if you fall asleep faster. Develop a relaxing evening ritual – a soothing soak in the tub before turning in or sipping a cup of soothing, chamomile tea. Research shows that chamomile eases anxiety and helps bring on sleep.

You may have heard of white noise machines. These machines produce low-grade sounds in varying frequencies that help mask sounds that might interfere with your ability to sleep. If you’re not up for investing in a white noise machine, try placing a soft fan in your room to provide low-grade background noise. The fan has the added advantage of keeping the room cool.

Finally, make sure your sleep schedule is consistent. Pick a bedtime and stick to it even on the weekends. Your body will learn to shut down at the designated time. Resist the urge to take prescription or over-the-counter sleep medications as recent studies have linked them with a higher risk of dementia.

The Bottom Line

Sleep is vital for good health and vitality and it becomes more challenging to get quality sleep as you age. If you’re having persistent insomnia, see your doctor. Once you know you’re healthy, change your sleep habits and environment to make it easier to get a good night’s sleep.



Science Daily. “Deep Sleep May Act as Fountain of Youth in Old Age”
Scientific American. “Why Poor Sleep and Forgetfulness Plague the Aging Brain”
Am Fam Physician. 1999 May 1;59(9):2551-2558.
National Sleep Foundation. “Hear, Listen. Are noises keeping you awake?”
Dorffner G., Vitr M., Anderer P. (2015) The Effects of Aging on Sleep Architecture in Healthy Subjects. In: Vlamos P., Alexiou A. (eds) GeNeDis 2014. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, vol 821. Springer, Cham.
Medical News Today. “Over-the-counter sleep aids linked to dementia”
JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(3):401-407. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.7663.
Berkeley News. “Poor sleep linked to toxic buildup of Alzheimer’s protein, memory loss”


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