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Sleep and Aging: Changing Through the Years

Contrary to popular opinion, older adults don't need more sleep (or less) than younger adults. An average of 7 to 9 hours of sleep is sufficient to keep them healthy, well-rested, and alert. The sad reality is that nearly half of seniors above 65 have a sleep-related problem. Even though sleep patterns may change with age, the need for quality sleep does not.

Some seniors have trouble falling asleep, or getting enough sleep, despite being in perfect health. Here's most everything you need to know about the connection between sleep and aging.

Why Aging Affects Sleep

Besides sleep-related health problems, sleep duration can be affected by changes in the circadian rhythm, otherwise known as the body's 24-hour biological clock. This clock is responsible for regulating and influencing the sleepiness and alertness cycle by responding to the changes in light in a particular environment.

The brain coordinates sleep from a region called the hypothalamus. This region connects to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a brain system that controls the circadian rhythm, and the release of the sleep hormone called melatonin.

Melatonin production increases when darkness falls. Since the body's biological clock responds to changes in light in the environment, it sends signals to the pineal gland where melatonin is found, through the SCN. In response, the brain releases melatonin, which absorbs into the bloodstream and the fluid in the brain.

The purpose of melatonin is to put you in a state of quietness and calmness, making it easier to fall asleep, and also stay asleep. However, as people grow older, the response of the SCN part of the brain begins to slow down, causing a chain of reactions that reduce melatonin production.

As we get older, the brain shrinks and ages as well, affecting its functionality. As a result, it becomes less effective in coordinating activities of the circadian rhythm, including melatonin production. This explains why many older adults have trouble trying to fall asleep.

How Does Aging Affect Sleep?

Now that you know old age affects the brain's stimulation for melatonin, let's discuss some of the direct impacts of these changes.

Changing Sleep Schedule

When the circadian rhythm begins to malfunction, it affects the natural stimulation of sleepiness and alertness. For this reason, the clock shifts forward in time in a process called phase advance. As a result of the new sleep schedule, most seniors wake up too early, and feel too tired during the day.

Difficulty in Adjusting to Advanced Sleep Phase

It takes quite a long time for seniors to adapt to sleep cycle changes. Additionally, because they have trouble sleeping, they may suffer from daytime fatigue, daytime sleepiness, absent-mindedness, stress, and loneliness.

Nighttime Awakening

Research shows that most older adults spend more time in the earlier stages of sleep than they do in the later stages. These stages are shorter, and characterized by light sleep, restlessness, and partial alertness. In addition to phase advance, light sleep causes nighttime awakening among sleepers, and they end up feeling tired most of the time during the day due to a lack of enough sleep at night.

Longer Daytime Naps

Changes in the circadian rhythm lead to longer daytime naps, especially among seniors who lack enough sleep at night. Some studies reveal that these naps can boost brain health among older adults. However, long daytime naps are also among the common reasons many people struggle to fall asleep at night.

Confusion and Memory Issues

Some seniors show signs of confusion and memory loss while awake, due to overlapping effects of aging on the brain, body, and sleep. These symptoms can also be rampant in seniors with health conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, mental health issues, and insomnia.

For instance, some people with advanced Alzheimer's disease usually tend to wander at night, feeling lost.

Common Causes of Sleep Problems in Seniors

Aside from reduced melatonin production, many seniors have trouble sleeping due to:


Pain caused by old age commonly originates from health problems such as arthritis, cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory problems. It usually targets the joints, back, and other pressure points of the body during sleep. In addition, some conditions such as cancers and arthritis cause chronic pain, making sleepers uncomfortable and restless all day and night.

Older adults can also develop pain from falls, bad posture, and poor-quality bedding. This is because normal aging causes body joints to break down. As a result, the bones become fragile, leading to a loss of support and stability when moving from one spot to another. As a result, many seniors strain, stress, or break their joints and bones while walking.


Some medications, such as antidepressants, can cause sleeplessness among older adults. In addition, many senior sleepers suffer from conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia, which force them to rely more on medication to improve their health. As a result, they may experience more side effects of using some medications, including sleeplessness and restlessness at night.

Anxiety and Stress

Most elders have age-related fears that can cause anxiety and stress. For example, they may worry about their families, medical conditions, expenses, loneliness, and more, as they grow older. These fears may keep them awake at night, leading to disrupted sleep.


According to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 48% of seniors show insomnia symptoms. This condition makes it difficult to fall asleep (or stay asleep), and causes sleepers to wake up sooner than anticipated. Insomnia among the elderly derives from several factors, including:

  • changes in circadian rhythm
  • Medication
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • anxiety
  • Mental health problems
  • sleep disorder
  • pain
  • poor sleep habits

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition that disrupts the breathing pattern during sleep by pausing and starting at frequent intervals. Obstructive sleep apnea happens when the muscles of the upper airway relax excessively, causing the soft tissues at the back of the mouth to collapse, and block the airway.

When that happens, it becomes nearly impossible to enjoy a good night’s rest.

Sleep apnea affects about 32% of seniors over 65 years of age.

Sleep apnea also causes sleep disturbance, leading to daytime drowsiness, headaches, anxiety, and stress, among other problems.

Nighttime Urination

As humans age, their bodies produce less antidiuretic hormone, the hormone responsible for regulating the amount of water in the body. As a result, such sleepers can't control the urge to urinate, prompting them to use the bathroom more frequently at night.

REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

Individuals with REM sleep behavior disorder usually act out their dreams. Sometimes, these actions can be rapid and violent, leading to injuries and pain. REM sleep behavior disorder is more common among older adults.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

About 9 to 20% of older adults suffer from Restless Legs Syndrome, a condition that propels a sleeper to move their limbs uncontrollably. Restless Leg Syndrome increases in the evenings, but it can occur at any time of the day. As a result, it causes restlessness during sleep.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD)

Periodic limb movement disorder also leads to uncontrollable limb movement. However, unlike Restless Legs Syndrome, this urge occurs during sleep, and is more common in the lower limbs than the upper ones. This condition affects 30% of elders over 65, and is more common among those suffering from RLS.

Sleep Disordered Breathing

The prevalence of Sleep Disordered Breathing increases with age. SDB refers to a group of disorders that cause breathing difficulties in sleepers. Its prevalence among seniors is partly due to physical and physiological changes that may affect the shape of the rib cage and the upper airway. As a result, these seniors may have sleep difficulties, leading to restlessness and insufficient sleep.

Sleep Tips for Older Adults

We've compiled some sleep tips for older adults below to aid in improving a senior's sleep hygiene:

Create a Bedtime Routine

Bedtime routines such as taking a bath before bed, reading, and performing stretching exercises promote deep sleep and relaxation, and enable seniors to enjoy better sleep at night. When creating an effective bedtime routine for older adults, consider the mobility, health condition, sleep issues, and other factors affecting their sleep to ensure they feel comfortable.

Keep Regular Sleep Schedules

Considering that the sleep wake cycle changes during old age, seniors need to reschedule their sleep and wake-up time to avoid having problems with sleep recovery. Although it may take time to adjust to the new routine, it can improve their general health and well-being. For example, it can reduce daytime drowsiness and general fatigue.

Eliminate Bedroom Distractions

As part of improving sleep hygiene, reducing bedroom distractions such as bright lighting, television, cellphones, and more helps older adults experience better sleep. You may also want to keep away active pets, such as cats and dogs, that may cause sleep disruptions by moving or making noises at night.

Reduce Intake of Caffeine and Stimulants

Excessive consumption of caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and other stimulants makes it difficult for many sleepers to fall asleep. Reducing the intake of these stimulants, especially a few hours before bedtime, can improve the sleep quality of an older adult.


Generally, exercising improves the overall health of older adults, enabling them to have a regular, longer, and healthier sleep pattern. However, not all exercises suit older adults. Due to their fragile bones and frail bodies, it’s best to consult a fitness expert about safe fitness and wellness exercises for older adults.

Keep the Bedroom Cool

Poor ventilation and heat in the bedroom can lead to poor sleep quality, due to nighttime sweating and unfresh air. Keeping a bedroom clean and aerated eliminates these problems, allowing older adults to have a good night's sleep.

Safe Sleeping Tips for Older Adults

When taking care of the elderly, consider the following tips to improve their safety and promote a good night’s sleep.

Install Bed Rails

Bed rails help sleepers with limited mobility get off the bed by providing an anchor that supports them when they try to stand. They also prevent sleepers from slipping and falling off the bed, especially when physically acting out their dreams.

Keep a Telephone or Call Button Within Reach

You may want to keep a telephone or call button near the elder's bedside to enable them to call for help whenever they need it. Keep a list of important phone numbers close by or set emergency buttons they can easily dial on the phone to call for help. However, make sure the phone has a soft and low notification volume that won't startle the sleeper when it rings.

Install Dim Lighting

Some sleepers may need dim lights to help them navigate dark rooms, especially when going to the bathroom. For example, dim lighting makes it easier to locate the wall switch for the main light when using the bathroom. These lights also create a perfect sleep environment for a good night’s rest.

Reduce Bedroom Hazards

Remove bedroom hazards like sharp objects, loose rugs, faulty electric cords, and so on to minimize the chances of accidents.

How are Sleep Disorders in Older Adults Diagnosed?

Seniors with symptoms of sleep disorders should visit a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis of their sleep-related issues. Some of these symptoms include:

  • excessive daytime sleepiness
  • irregular breathing
  • movements during sleep
  • memory loss
  • absent-mindedness
  • fatigue
  • mood swings
  • snoring

The doctor may perform a polysomnography test to diagnose different sleep orders and recommend the best treatment plans.

Sleeping Medication

Sleep medicine can reduce the symptoms of sleep disorders, and improve a senior's sleep quality. However, sleep medication should be taken as recommended by a physician, to avoid side effects and wrong dosages. Most physicians also advise against taking alcohol while using sleeping pills.

Pros and Cons of Using Sleeping Pills

Generally, this medication is good for short-term use, and can relieve stress and promote relaxation. On the other hand, sleeping pills also have some side effects that may prevent you from enjoying a good night’s sleep. For example, long-term use of over-the-counter sleeping pills can cause dizziness, constipation, a state of confusion, dry mouth, and blurred vision.

Other Treatment Options

Treating chronic insomnia among older adults may involve more than taking sleeping pills. For example, changing lifestyle habits, such as smoking and excessive consumption of caffeinated drinks before bed, can reduce nighttime awakening, and also make it easier to fall asleep.

Other possible ways of treating insomnia include:

  • taking antidepressants for insomnia
  • using Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device to manage sleep apnea
  • dopamine to manage RLS and PLMD.

Do Seniors Need Less Sleep?

The truth is, older adults don't need less sleep than the average person. According to studies, seniors need the same amount of sleep as they did in their early adulthood. However, many seniors have less sleep due to the several health and sleep problems associated with old age.

What Questions Should I Ask My Doctor About Sleep?

If you plan to visit a doctor regarding your sleep problem, you should ask the following questions:

  • How many hours of sleep do I need?
  • Which medication affects my sleep?
  • Can I have daytime naps, and if so, for how long?
  • Why do I feel tired after waking up?

In addition to these questions, you should inform the doctor about your sleep patterns and other symptoms you have noticed in the past few days.

What is the Best Mattress for the Elderly?

Find a good mattress for a good night’s sleep. Although older adults may experience similar negative health consequences, they rarely share the same preferences when choosing the ideal mattress.

Here are some important factors to consider when shopping for a mattress that guarantees a good night’s sleep for seniors.

Firmness Level

Firmer mattresses tend to hurt the joints and pressure points of the body. They can also cause low back pain among senior sleepers, leading to more sleep problems. On the other hand, softer mattresses may not provide adequate support. To find a balance between support and comfort, consider the properties of the materials that make up a mattress.

A latex mattress is a great example of a mattress that integrates balance and comfort to provide the ultimate sleep experience.

Motion Transfer

Elders who share a bed may be irritated by their partner's movements if their mattress doesn't isolate motion. It may also be more difficult to fall back to sleep after the disruption, causing many health complications, as explained before.

Temperature Regulation

Sleeping hot is one of the most common causes of sleep disturbances that prevent seniors from enjoying a good night’s sleep. However, the issue of sleep disturbances, also known as fragmented sleep, entirely depends on the materials used to create the mattress. For instance, most memory foam mattresses sleep hot, while latex mattresses sleep cool.

Where to Find the Best Mattress for Seniors

Latex For Less is home to the most comfortable and affordable bedding tailored to suit the needs of different types of sleepers for a good night’s sleep. We know finding the ideal mattress for senior sleepers comes with many challenges, and that's why we offer a variety of solutions.

Our latex mattress is unlike any other you'll find in the market. It comes with two firmness levels on either side, allowing the sleeper to change how the surface of the mattress feels by flipping the mattress. This is helpful to senior sleepers who constantly feel uncomfortable sleeping on the same bed every night. In addition, both sides have a soft comfort layer made with breathable, organic cotton and wool.

Aside from the mattress, the latex topper does more than change the surface of a mattress. It provides a sleeper with plush comfort, regulates temperature, and isolates motion.

An adjustable bed helps customize sleep positions for seniors to provide restful sleep. The bed can also manage sleep apnea, pain, arthritis, and other conditions that cause pain and restlessness at night.

If you need the kind of mattress that guarantees a good night's sleep and lasts for ages, Latex For Less is the place to shop. All mattresses come with a 120-night free trial and a 20-year warranty!

Elizabeth Magill

Elizabeth Magill is a professional freelance writer and editor who holds an MBA. Liz specializes in writing about health news, medical conditions, healthy living, small business, career and work, personal finance, and green-living, including news and trending topics in these specialties. Her clients include Healthline, The Motley Fool, GoBanking Rates,, Big Interview, HealthNews, Intuit Small Business Blog, Intuit Health, American News Report,, IFX Medical, and many others. She’s also a published eBook author and ghost writer for various clients in the health, medical, career, small business, and personal finance niches.