The Science of Sleep

While we need the same amount of sleep at 70 that we did at 20, our “sleep architecture” is drastically different. 

We often think of rest as a static state, but sleep is a dynamic process that cycles through multiple stages, multiple times a night. A good night’s sleep is actually made up of four to five sleep cycles.

Periods of shallow, dreamless sleep are followed by a deep dreaming state known as rapid eye movement (REM). As we age, we spend more and more time in the shallow stages of sleep, where it’s much easier to wake and stay awake. 


Becoming an Early Bird

As you get older, you may realize that your night-owl days are behind you. That’s because our circadian rhythms change as we age. Seniors often find themselves waking earlier in the morning and getting sleepy earlier in the evening.

Although the reasons for this shift are not entirely understood, according to scientists, older adults produce less melatonin — the hormone that controls sleep. Aging also means we produce less growth hormone, the substance that helps developing children sleep so deeply.


Sleep Struggles

As a result of these changes, many seniors struggle with sleep latency, taking a long time to fall asleep, and sleep fragmentation, waking up more often at night. Of adults over 65, 13 percent of men and 36 percent of women take longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep.

So instead of the typical seven to eight hours a night, many seniors log six to seven hours. And they wake up an average of 3 to 4 times a night, often to urinate or due to discomfort caused by pain or chronic illness.

These changes may cause seniors to feel dissatisfied with their sleep, and they may yearn for the easy sleep they might have experienced when they were young.


Tackling Insomnia

With more aches and pains and shallower sleep patterns, it’s no surprise that insomnia is more common among seniors. As the most common sleep disorder, approximately 44 percent of older Americans experience one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a couple of days a week.

Insomnia symptoms include taking longer than 45 minutes to fall asleep, waking throughout the night and waking up and being unable to fall back asleep. If insomnia lasts longer than a month, it is considered chronic.

The effects of insomnia can wreak havoc on a senior’s waking life, including potential daytime drowsiness, irritability, trouble concentrating and an increased risk of accidents — especially nighttime falls.

The good news is that there’s a lot that seniors can do to attempt to address the problem. Insomnia and other sleep problems are generally the result of underlying physical or psychiatric conditions that are often treatable.


Sleep-Stopping Problems­

Besides insomnia, the two most common causes of interrupted Zs are breathing disorders, like snoring and sleep apnea, and movement disorders, like restless leg syndrome.

For 90 million Americans, snoring is the most common cause of sleep disruption, and the condition often worsens with age. The most likely culprit? Sleep apnea. 

Those who suffer from this condition stop breathing for short periods of time throughout the night. In addition to being tired from waking up so often, untreated sleep apnea may lead to heart disease, memory loss, headaches and depression.

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is also more common among seniors. This neurological disease involves painful, tingling legs that cause sufferers to wake up multiple times a night. One study even found that nearly 45 percent of seniors suffer from some form of RLS.

Other conditions that can create sleeplessness include diabetes, asthma, anxiety, depression, MS, heartburn, arthritis, menopause, cancer and simply having to go to the bathroom.


Maximize Your Zs

Here’s a list of things you can do to try to spend less time falling asleep and more time staying asleep:


1. Get plenty of exercise

2. Avoid afternoon naps

3. Cut back on caffeine, alcohol and nicotine

4. Get lots of sunlight

5. Limit noise and light at night

6. Don’t drink before bed

7. Keep a regular bedtime

8. Calm your mind before bed

9. Use your bedroom just for sleeping

10. Stay away from electronic devices at night

11. Get up if you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes

12. Allow your sleep schedule to adjust as you age


Be Kind to Yourself

Nothing makes us stay awake quite like worrying about our sleep. That’s why it’s important to set realistic expectations. As a senior, you’ll probably never sleep as soundly as you did when you were a child, or even a teenager, but healthy sleep habits may help you optimize the sleep you do get. 

And if good sleep hygiene, you may want to seek treatment from a doctor or a sleep specialist who can diagnose your issues and help you get back to catching Zs. 

For peace of mind that won’t keep you up at night, consider starting your next chapter at Brookdale. If you’re interested in our senior living communities, we’d love to chat! Contact us any time.


The above content is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you have a medical condition.  The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on our site.­

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