Aging Makes Deep, Restful Sleep More Difficult to Achieve

Man in robe sitting and drinking teaAging harms the brain’s ability to trigger deep and restful sleep, according to a review published in the journal Neuron. As a result, seniors often have more difficulty falling asleep and tend to wake more frequently during the night. This sleeplessness is linked to physical and mental health issues.

Why Seniors Sleep Less

The study was a literature review that explored previous research on age and sleep. Researchers suggest, beginning in the fifth decade of life, many people go to bed later and wake earlier. They may take longer to fall asleep, sleep for shorter periods of time, and wake more frequently. They are also more likely to be awakened by external stimuli. They typically spend less time in slow wave sleep cycles, have shorter sleep cycles, and spend more time awake during the night.

These changes in sleep patterns can produce many behavioral changes. Ten percent of adults ages 55-64 report napping during the day. For those ages 75-84, that figure rises to 25%.

The study’s authors suggest these sleep changes are not due to scheduling issues or to a decreased need for sleep. Instead, brain circuits and neurons linked to sleep degrade with age, making it more difficult to get a good night’s sleep. This trend can accelerate and play a significant role in the aging process.

The study found sleep difficulties in old age are not universal. Some seniors take fewer naps and feel more alert during the day as they transition from midlife to the senior years. Factors such as depression, sleep disorders, chronic pain, and nighttime bladder disturbances may help explain this difference, suggesting brain aging alone does not account for all senior sleep difficulties.

The Role of Sleep in Senior Health

Previous research has found a link between senior sleep habits and overall health. A 2017 study found sudden sleep pattern changes toward excessive sleep time are linked to dementia. According to a 2016 study, daytime fatigue and nighttime sleep difficulties are linked to age-related brain atrophy.

Seniors experiencing sleep difficulties may benefit from therapy. Research published in 2016 found cognitive behavioral therapy may improve symptoms of insomnia in seniors. A 2015 study found seniors may find relief from sleep difficulties with psychotherapy and Tai Chi.


Mander, B. A., Winer, J. R., & Walker, M. P. (n.d.). Sleep and human aging. Neuron. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.02.004

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  • reginald


    April 20th, 2017 at 2:42 PM

    ugh, I thought that the sleepless nights might eventually come to an end but it sounds like there is only more of that to come as I get older

  • Dr. Carl E

    Dr. Carl E

    April 21st, 2017 at 9:45 AM

    There are many reasons that one can be afflicted with insomnia; environmental, psychological or physical. As we get older it is often that we do not require as much sleep. Or there may be physical discomforts that interrupt sleep. Unfortunately all medications, including over the counter meds, for sleep also have negative side effects including; depression, anxiety and negative emotions like anger. Because of this I have always recommended to my psychotherapy patients that they use a good guided meditation for getting to sleep. It is a lot less expensive for them than any medication and no negative side effects.

  • Ralph


    April 25th, 2017 at 2:52 PM

    Why is it that even though physicians know that this is a problem with older patients they are more likely to prescribe sleep medication for them than they are to talk to them about better alternatives? Exercise, breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, even taking a walk, all of these things can be so much healthier for you than taking a pill at night and hoping that it brings about some measure of sleep. Wouldn’t it be much more mindful to treat these patients like they have a very long and productive life still ahead of then and that as a part of that we will help them reestablish healthy sleeping patterns?

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