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How Sleep Changes as We Age

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Many things in our lives change as we get older. We’re all familiar with back and knee aches, but many biological changes can also occur as we age. Our sleeping patterns, for instance, change with each passing year.

What constitutes a normal sleep pattern is different for everyone. For instance, some people have rarely slept more than seven hours each night for their entire adulthood, and as long as it was not the result or cause of an underlying issue, this could just be that individual’s version of normal. Same goes for those who regularly receive nine hours of sleep.

Some changes are minor or difficult to avoid, but others may be helped or may point to an underlying health issue that can be treated.

Changing Sleep Times

Most adults, especially after retirement, begin to get sleepy earlier in the evening. We might find ourselves hitting the hay a few hours earlier than we did a decade or two before. The amount of sleep we receive, however, should stay between a seven- to nine-hour range, so if you begin to travel to bed earlier, you should also expect to wake up earlier.

For most, this will not present an issue. If, however, you or a loved one is falling asleep and waking at odd hours that interfere with a usual schedule, it may be a symptom of advanced sleep phase syndrome, and treatments are available to make your sleep schedule more manageable.

Difficulty Falling and Staying Asleep

Many older adults sleep lighter than they did in their younger years. As we age, it’s not uncommon to enter deep sleep less often. In some cases, our environments may be to blame, lying in an old bed for a long duration may make our bodies more difficult, or we may be colder than we used to be, and causing us to wake more frequently. Finding a solution to these issues may take some experimenting, but it will be worth the feeling of rest.

If, however, you have a very difficult time falling or staying asleep, it may be due to an underlying health issue. Depression, restless leg syndrome, gastric reflux, and snoring can all cause insomnia in older adults. Certain medications or combinations of medicines may also contribute to insomnia.

Failing to get proper sleep can also contribute to illness and disease, so if you’re experiencing insomnia it is important to speak with your primary care provider and determine a treatment plan.

Dreamless Sleep

Throughout sleep, there are many stages and each serves a distinct purpose in our process of recouping energy for the next day. We go through several stages of dreamless sleep, that are less deep than REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep, where dreaming occurs.

As we age, it’s more common for us to have fewer deep sleep stages. This can especially be true if we are napping frequently during the day, drinking alcohol before bed, or experiencing the symptoms of insomnia. Having a night of dreamless sleep every so often is nothing to be too alarmed about, but several nights of dreamless sleep can be harmful to our mental and physical health.

As with difficulty falling asleep, if you’re not feeling rested upon waking, it’s important to speak with your primary care provider and explore a treatment to plan to avoid illness.


Sleep is a powerful tool for the body. It helps restore energy to the body and helps your mind process the prior day. Getting the right amount of sleep can help your mind stay fresh and your body feel ready to take on the day, no matter what age you are.