As we age, we’re more likely to experience trouble sleeping. According to the National Sleep Foundation, as many as 61% of post-menopausal women report insomnia symptoms, and most people aged 65 or over wake up at least once a night to go to the bathroom.(1,2)Some people over the age of 60 briefly wake up as many as 150 times a night, compared to just five or so times a night as a young adult.(3)

A lack of good quality sleep can leave us feeling grumpy, tired, and irritable, and reduce our ability to focus, stay positive, and go about our everyday lives. Too little sleep can also increase our sensitivity to pain, compromise immune system activity, and make us more likely to experience accidents and illness.

Do we sleep less as we get older?

The idea that we sleep less as we get older is just one of many pervasive myths about sleep. It’s not true that we sleep less as we get older, or that we need more, or less, sleep. In fact, we need around the same amount of sleep (7–8 hours) throughout our entire adult lives to feel properly rested. So, why the confusion?

Most older adults don’t get a straight 8 hours of sleep a night. This might be due to trips to the bathroom, pain or medications related to chronic medical conditions, and general wakefulness or feelings of anxiousness or low mood. The lack of uninterrupted sleep can make it seem like we sleep less when we are older, even if we make up the lost time through daytime naps and dozing.

In many ways, taking an afternoon nap is a smart approach to sleep. Sadly, while many younger adults would love a siesta, schedules rarely allow for naps at work. One thing’s for sure, retirees shouldn’t feel indulgent for catching a quick cat-nap if they feel sleepy mid-afternoon.

Older adults may also experience advance sleep phase syndrome, where they begin feeling sleepier earlier in the evening, go to bed earlier, and then wake earlier than they have in previous years. Light therapy (which helps delay melatonin synthesis) may help in cases where this change in sleep schedule is problematic.

More recently, research suggests that we may experience a decrease in the quality of sleep in our later years due to changes in the brain. So, while we may sleep just as many hours as we did when we were young, we may not get the same level of restorative deep sleep that we need to feel refreshed. (4) “Pink noise”, a form of sleep sound therapy, may hold promise for promoting deep sleep in older adults, but the research is still very much in its infancy.

 

Middle age sleep problems

Sleep difficulties become increasingly common around the age of 50, for a variety of reasons. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2003 Sleep in America poll, 44% of older adults report one or more nighttime symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights per week.

While hot flashes and night sweats may be to blame for some sleep problems, snoring also becomes more common and more severe post-menopause and in middle age. Snoring can be a sign of a serious underlying health issue, such as obstructive sleep apnea, meaning that anyone losing sleep to snoring should get checked out by a qualified physician.

Snoring and sleep apnea may also occur due to changes in body composition and weight. As we age, our metabolism changes, which can lead to centralized weight gain, that is a more apple-shaped physique. This can affect our breathing, and cause us to wake multiple times during the night. Often, people with sleep apnea are unaware they have the condition and don’t understand why they still feel tired when they wake up in the morning.

Preliminary research in animals also suggests that a chronic high-calorie intake may affect the body’s internal clock, causing diet-induced premature aging and difficulties with sleep. (5)Also, age-related changes in the brain may disrupt sleep homeostasis and our ability to bounce back after a poor night’s sleep.(6)

Middle age sleep problems may also be related to worries over family, work, or finances. Changes in life circumstances, such as children leaving home, the breakdown of a relationship, or worries over work and retirement can make it hard to fall asleep or get back to sleep if you wake up in the early hours.

Movement disorders are also more likely in older adults, and can include periodic limb movement disorder and restless legs syndrome (which has been connected to iron deficiency in some people). These conditions cause people to twitch or move their limbs during sleep, which may disrupt sleep and cause drowsiness during the daytime.

Around 45% of older adults have some form of periodic limb movement disorder, which can disrupt their sleep and the sleep of anyone with whom they share a bed.(2) REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD) is another cause of sleep problems, and is more common in men over the age of 50.(3)In severe RBD, muscles that are usually immobile during sleep may become quite active, leading people to act out their dreams.

Aging, digestion, and key nutrients for sleep

For a healthy sleep-wake cycle we need adequate amounts of certain key micronutrients, such as B vitamins, magnesium, as well as macronutrients such as protein. Protein can provide amino acids such as theanine, which can help calm a racing mind, and tryptophan, which we need to synthesize melatonin, the neurohormone that regulates sleep.

Unfortunately, age can affect our appetite and make our bodies both less efficient at absorbing and using nutrients properly. To support good quality sleep, therefore, it’s important to ensure a good intake of all essential nutrients, ideally through diet, or with a highly bioavailable multivitamin and mineral formula, such as MultiSure for Men 50+ and MultiSure for Women 50+.

Avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine, later in the day can also support good sleep, as can limiting alcohol intake. This will also help reduce sleep disruptions caused by a need to use the bathroom. Be sure to check out our other recent articles on sleep, including what to eat for a good night’s sleep, and the science of insomnia.

And, finally, be sure to consult your health care practitioner if you’re experiencing chronic sleeplessness or have other concerns about your sleeping habits as insomnia and ongoing sleep issues could indicate an underlying health problem.

References:

  1. National Sleep Foundation. Menopause and Sleep. Accessed January, 2018. Available: https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/menopause-and-sleep
  2. National Sleep Foundation. Aging and Sleep. Accessed January, 2018. Available: https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/aging-and-sleep/page/0/1
  3. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Sleep and Growing Older. Accessed January, 2018. Available: http://www.sleepeducation.org/news/2013/08/07/sleep-and-growing-older
  4. Scullin, M.K. (2017). Do Older Adults Need Sleep? A Review of Neuroimaging, Sleep, and Aging Studies. Curr Sleep Med Rep, (3), 204-214.
  5. Stankiewicz, A.J., McGowan, E.M., Yu, L. & Zhdanova, I.V. (2017). Impaired Sleep, Circadian Rhythms and Neurogenesis in Diet-Induced Premature Aging. Int J Mol Sci, 18(11). pii: E2243
  6. Brown, M.K., Chan, M.T., Zimmerman, J.E., et al. (2014). Aging induced endoplasmic reticulum stress alters sleep and sleep homeostasis. Neurobiol Aging, 35(6), 1431-41.