Sleep Habits: How They Change as We Age and How to Improve Them

We all need sleep. It is how our bodies reset and refresh for the next day. Unfortunately, many of us do not get enough of it, leading to adverse health effects. This is even more true in older individuals. As we age, our sleep habits change, often resulting in less sleep. 

At Vivage, with rehabilitation and skilled nursing communities throughout Colorado and Missouri, we know the importance of sleep and the overall effects it has on health and the healing process. This is why we have decided to shed light on how our sleep naturally changes as we grow older and ways to improve your overall quality of sleep.

Natural Age-Related Changes in Sleep Habits

Although there are certain medical conditions, health problems, and medication side effects that may negatively impact sleep, changes to sleep habits do occur naturally as we grow older. While there is not an immediate concern to think that something else is affecting sleep, it is important to keep in mind that there could be another factor if sleep problems worsen. Natural age-related changes in sleep habits can include: 

Total Sleep Time Decreases

Although we may spend the same amount of time in bed, the quantity of actual time asleep decreases with age. One study concluded that “the transition from midlife (age 36-50 years) to late life (age 71-83 years) involved…an increase in time awake of 28 minutes per decade at the expense of decreases in both light non-REM sleep and REM sleep.”

Furthermore, older adults have a tendency to wake up more frequently during the night. Whether it is due to normal aches and pains or the need to use the restroom, these disturbances affect not only the quantity of sleep, but also the quality.

This leads to a less deep, more fragmented sleep that is not as restful or satisfying as it was in the earlier stages of life. 

Changes to the Inner Circadian Rhythm

The National Sleep Foundation writes, “[the] circadian rhythm (also known as [the] sleep/wake cycle or body clock) is a natural, internal system that’s designed to regulate feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness over a 24-hour period. This complex timer is controlled by an area of the brain that responds to light, which is why humans are most alert while the sun is shining and are ready to sleep when it’s dark outside.”

As we age, changes to our circadian rhythms may cause us to get sleepier earlier in the evening and wake up earlier each morning. “Experts also believe that the rhythm signal tends to weaken with age, so there’s less of a clear signal organizing the body’s processes to be in sync with each other and with the day.”

How Sleep is Affected During Times of Stress and Uncertainty

When the body is stressed, it releases a hormone called cortisol. This hormone is known to cause the fight or flight response, meaning that the mind is alert and ready to react to a perceived threat. While short spurts of stress can be beneficial in alerting us of a danger, long periods of stress negatively impact our health. 

During times of uncertainty, like the global COVID-19 pandemic, this perceived threat is constant, leading to chronic stress that negatively impacts sleep habits and causes individuals to toss and turn all night.

Reducing stress levels is essential for improving the quality of sleep. Everyone is different and has their own ways of relaxing or unwinding. For ideas on where to start, WebMD has created a list of relaxation techniques that can help to reduce stress levels.

Improving Sleep Habits

Stick to a Consistent Schedule

Sticking to a schedule and routine may be the most effective way to train the brain and body to know when it is time to sleep. Because the inner circadian rhythm signal weakens with age, older individuals may need to make their own rhythm. Once a routine and habit are established, the brain and body will know when it is time for bed, making the individual feel sleepy.

Avoid Late Afternoon Naps

Naps are great, but taking naps effectively is crucial in order to promote healthy sleep habits. Naps should only be taken earlier in the day. If taken too late in the day, like late afternoon or evening, they may prevent individuals from sleeping at night.

Make the Bedroom a Sleep Only Zone

If the bedroom is only used for sleep, the brain and body will know it, meaning that when an individual lays in bed, he or she will grow tired and sleepy. If time is spent lying awake in bed, this affects this whole process. Older adults especially should refrain from tossing and turning for a long period of time to fall asleep. He or she should get up and return only when they are sleepy enough to drift off.

At Vivage, we are all about health and healing, and sleep is a major contributing factor to overall wellness. The accommodations at Vivage are designed to make individuals feel comfortable and at home, allowing for quality rest and healing. Visit our website for more information on what we have to offer.


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