Sleep & Aging

How does sleep change as we age?

After age 30 deep sleep begins to be replaced by longer periods of lighter sleep. In older people the sleep pattern is characterized by reduced amounts of slow wave sleep (NREM), increased periods of wakefulness, and more frequent awakenings. Older adults are sleepier in the daytime because often they are unable to get sufficient sleep at night.

A newborn spends about 50% of sleep time in REM sleep. In adults, about 20% of sleep time is spent in REM sleep, and 80% in NREM sleep.

The time spent in stages 3 & 4 NREM sleep appears to determine the adequacy of rest. Aging affects the ability to enter into deep sleep stages 3 & 4. It is the quality of rest that diminishes, not the need.

Researchers, and laboratory analyses of human sleep rhythms, have documented the following changes in sleep patterns in older people:

  • Increase in stage-one sleep (light sleep), less stage-three and stage-four sleep (i.e. deep sleep).

  • marginally less rapid eye movement sleep (dream sleep).

  • the first REM sleep periods come faster than in earlier years.

  • a reduction in REM later in the aging process.

  • Higher incidence of sleep apnea & myoclonic jerk.

  • Research suggests that older men tend to have more passive, inner-directed dreams, while older women tend to dream more active, outgoing dreams.

  • Decrease in sleep efficiency ( the amount of time spent in actual sleep related to the amount of time spent in bed).

  • Increase in number of naps taken during the day.

    Increased sleepiness during the day ( shortened sleep onset latency).

  • Change of bedtime and awakening time to earlier hours, and an increase in awakenings during the night.


This means that as you age you get less quality rest (stage 3&4 sleep), wake up earlier, and spend more time in bed in order to get the rest you need.

No wonder then that, as we age, the mind can get less alert during the day (symptoms of old-age are attributable to a large degree to loss of quality sleep). Recent data suggests that 70 million Americans may suffer from either chronic sleep disorder, or intermittent sleep deprivation.

However, it's important to remember that many healthy elderly individuals have no, or few, sleep problems. Nor is insomnia, trouble falling asleep at night, or frequent drowsing by day inevitable with increasing age.

So, what are the causes of these changes in the sleep pattern?

Sleep is an active state with many different components in a neurological sense. There are many ways in which sleep can be disordered, either by disease or dysfunction of the nervous system, and/or of the mind.

Sleep may be disrupted by:

Changes in one's circadian rhythm (biological clock). Circadian rhythms are biological cycles of about 24 hours that include sleep/wake, body temperature and melatonin secretion cycles. The sleep/wake cycle is controlled by our biological clock. The average younger adult gets sleepy at around 10 or 11 PM and sleeps for 8 to 9 hours, waking between 6 to 8 AM. As we age, our circadian clock advances, causing advanced sleep phase syndrome. People with this syndrome get sleepy early in the evening (around 8 or 9 PM). If they were to go to bed at that time, they would sleep for about 8 hours and wake up 4 to 5 AM. However, when they try to stay up to 10-11 PM, their bodies still wake up at 4 to 5 AM. This means they only get 5-6 hours of sleep, the amount of time they were in bed before their advanced sleep -wake cycle wakes them up.

The elderly generally secrete lesser amounts of certain chemicals that regulate the sleep/wake cycle. Both melatonin (a substance produced by the pineal gland that promotes sleep and influences the sleep biological clock) and human growth hormone (HGH) production decrease with age. HGH, another hormone required for sound sleep, is an essential ingredient for maintenance of bone and muscle tissue as well as for cell growth. Production of these hormones takes place when the brain goes into certain theta and delta levels while in sleep. However, with aging, the brain achieves these brain patterns with less regularity, so normal production gets disrupted.

Rise in levels of the stress hormone, cortisol , in the evenings, adds to the reduction in abilty to enter theta wave stage.

There are also changes in the body temperature cycle, which occur with age.

In addition, decrease in exposure to natural light and a change in diet may compound sleep difficulties. Bright, natural light is considered essential for proper functioning of the circadian rhythm.

Lack of exercise and decreased mental stimulation may also lead to sleep defiency. We practice The Tibetan Technique daily, to keep ourselves youthful and lithe.

Medical problems that include arthritis, heartburn, osteoporosis, and heart and lung disease, may also interrupt, delay, or abbreviate sleep. Everyday ailments like headaches, muscle aches, leg cramps, and sinus pain disturb our rest more often as we age. Consult with your doctor. Medication may also become necessary in cases of intense pain from Arthritis, requiring immediate relief.

Drugs prescribed to treat medical conditions can occasionally result in sleep loss.

Physical changes associated with aging may also play a role. Aches and pains may lengthen the time it takes to fall asleep...and interrupt sleep thereafter. An aging bladder leads to the need to use the bathroom more frequently at night.

Poor sleep habits.

Psychological conditions including stress, depression, anxiety, alcoholism or drug abuse can result in loss of sleep. All of these conditions can cause the brain to lose the ability to enter the slower brain wave patterns of restful sleep . These patterns are where your brain and endocrine system make the essential substances needed for youthful vitality and well-being. These (and other) situations can cause the brain to lose some or all of its natural plasticity - its natural ability to easily and effortlessly change and flow into the different patterns of electrical energy necessary for optimum sleep.

Snoring, (frequently a by-product of sleep apnea), can lead to disturbances in the sleep rhythm. But it is possible to control snoring naturally through breath control.

More information on sleep at the links below:

Sleep and Good Health

Sleep Loss & Insomnia Solutions

Sleep Apnea


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