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How does sleep change as we age?

How Does Sleep Change As We Age?

We all know that as we get older our bodies change, and our sleeping patterns change too. Once we’re in our twilight years it can become increasingly difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep, although older people still need as much rest as they always did; contrary to popular belief, you don’t need less sleep as you age. Specialists note that these changes in sleep patterns – called “sleep architecture” – come about as we get older and this may contribute to sleep problems. Sleep takes place in several stages including deep sleep followed by light, dreamless sleep. This is then peppered with occasional periods of REM sleep, when active dreaming occurs. This sleep cycle is repeated a number of times through the night, and although the total amount of sleep time generally remains constant, people in their senior years spend longer in the lighter stages of sleep and less time in deeper sleep.

Many older people (although by no means all) may also find they wake up feeling unrested and suffer general tiredness throughout the day. This is thought to be due to the fact that it often takes them longer to nod off in the first place, coupled with a notable lack of REM sleep. Sleep disorders are also more common in seniors, such as snoring and sleep apnea, plus many older people take medication for other problems which can again disturb sleep.

Not only are there alterations in sleep architecture that take place as we age, other factors affecting sleep include the circadian rhythms coordinating the timing of our bodily functions. For instance, older people are likelier to feel dozy in the early evening and be awake earlier in the morning in comparison to people who are younger. This pattern is known as advanced sleep phase syndrome.

The reasons behind such changes in circadian rhythms and sleep during older age is not clearly understood. Some people believe it could be to do with exposure to light, and treatment options can include bright light therapy. Certain physical problems, for example a need to get up and down to the loo a couple of times a night, can also mean older people are tired in the day and look to head off to bed earlier. However, if these physical issues are dealt with promptly, daytime tiredness can be alleviated.