Few things are more satisfying than a soft pillow, a warm bed and a good’s night sleep after a long day. Yet many people find that getting a good night’s sleep becomes more challenging as they age. Approximately 50 percent of people experience sleep problems after age 80, according to the American Psychological Association (2010).
Sleep in Elderly People
A common misconception is that older people do not need as much sleep as younger adults. But while sleep in elderly individuals differs from sleep patterns in younger people, the body’s need for sleep does not change as we age.
Healthy sleep consists of two basic stages: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. The non-REM stage includes four sub-stages of sleep. The first two stages are light sleep. During stages three and four, delta sleep occurs. Delta sleep is the deepest and most restorative sleep stage. After the fourth stage of non-REM sleep, the sleeper enters REM sleep, where dreams occur.
As people age, they typically spend less time in deep sleep. Sleep tends to be shallower and older individuals wake more often. Older people also spend less time in REM sleep, need more time to fall asleep and tend to fall asleep earlier and wake earlier than younger adults (a condition called advanced sleep phase syndrome).
Aging and Sleep Disruptions
Many factors affect aging and sleep in elderly individuals. Physically, changes in body temperature, decreases in sleep-regulating hormones and aging bladders can disrupt sleep.
Sleep hygiene describes behavior that encourages sleep. Older adults can improve their sleep hygiene by:
- Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine in the hours before bedtime
- Developing a bedtime routine
- Keeping a regular sleep schedule
- Limiting daytime naps.
Lifestyle changes common to aging also affect sleep in elderly individuals, including:
- Changes in diet
- Daytime inactivity
- Decreased exposure to natural light
- Decreased mental stimulation.
Insomnia, daytime sleepiness and leg discomfort are common aging and sleep problems. Sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome may also be an issue. In addition, medication use increases as people age, and sleep in the elderly may be affected by medication side effects or interactions.
Sleep Help for Elderly Individuals
Despite the sleep problems that often occur as people age, sleep help for the elderly is available. Remaining in good mental health and physical health increases the chance that sleep patterns will remain stable.
Daytime sleepiness encourages napping, but too many naps during the day make it difficult to fall asleep at night. In turn, a lack of nighttime sleep leads to the need for a daytime nap. Proper sleep hygiene involves keeping a regular sleep and nap schedule.
Sleep help for elderly individuals includes keeping a positive outlook. Sleep complications can be associated with depression and worries. Sleep in elderly people may improve with depression or anxiety disorder treatment.
American Psychological Association. (2010). Older adult’s health and age-related changes. Retrieved September 17, 2010, from http://www.apa.org/pi/aging/resources/guides/older.aspx#.
de Benedictus, T., Larson, H., Kemp, G., Barston, S.,