Sleep Disorders: Sleep and Aging

Last Editorial Review: 6/20/2005
The Cleveland Clinic

More than half of men and women over the age of 65 years complain of at least one sleep problem. Many older people experience insomnia and other sleep difficulties on a regular basis.

As we get older, our sleep patterns change. In general, older people sleep less, experience more fragmented sleep, and spend less time in stages 3 & 4 and REM sleep (for example, deep sleep and dream sleep) than younger people. However, regardless of your age, good restorative sleep is essential to physical health and emotional well-being.

What Causes Sleep Problems in Older People?

Several factors may contribute to the inability to sleep well as we get older. Some common causes include:

  • Poor sleep habits: Irregular sleep-wake patterns can affect an individual's circadian rhythm and make it hard to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Other sleep hygiene issues, such as consumption of alcohol before bedtime, increased wakeful time in bed, or daytime napping, can also affect a person's ability to sleep.
  • Medical illness: Certain chronic medical conditions are common in older people. Some of these conditions, including heart failure, arthritis, heartburn, menopause and Alzheimer's disease, can affect sleep. These conditions can make it hard to fall sleep or may cause the person to awaken frequently, ultimately affecting duration and the quality of sleep. \
  • Medications: Some medications may impair a person's ability to fall asleep or stay asleep and may even stimulate wakefulness at night.
  • Psychological distress or psychiatric disorders: Old age is characterized by a lot of life events, some positive and some negative. Some older individuals experience psychological difficulties or psychiatric disorders that will affect the quality and quantity of sleep. For example, life changes such as the death of a loved one, moving from a family home, or physical limitations due to illness can cause significant stress and sleep difficulties.
  • Sleep disorders: Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and REM behavior disorder, are associated with aging.
  • Retirement: Retirement often leads to a lot of downtime with less daytime activity; this can lead to an irregular sleep-wake schedule and chronic sleep problems.

Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

Every person's sleep needs are different. If you are getting less sleep than when you were younger, but still feel rested and energetic during the day, it might just be that you now need less sleep. However, if you are noticing that your lack of sleep is affecting your daytime activities, you should talk to your doctor. There are steps you can take to improve your sleep quality.

Reviewed by The Sleep Medicine Center at The Cleveland Clinic.

Edited by Michael J. Breus, PhD, WebMD, September 2004.

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