A common misperception maintains that, as people age, they need less sleep. The truth is that sleep needs don’t diminish, but sleep difficulties do. Some of this pattern — called sleep architecture — may indeed spring from aging but often it’s associated with the medicines that are increasingly taken for the various physical and psychological difficulties associated with aging.
Older adults often experience poor sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep), as well as frequent waking-during-sleep experiences and early risings. The amount of deep sleep can also diminish, making the overall quality of sleep inferior. Some attribute this change in older adults’ circadian rhythms’ to changes in light — perhaps too much, perhaps too little.
Older adults are also more subject to advanced sleep phase disorder, which means that they tend to fall asleep earlier and wake up earlier. Insomnia is also more commonly reported by older Americans, by some 44 percent of that population.
Why older adults experience sleep problems is not totally understood, but many point to other physical and psychological problems they encounter as they age — and the medications that are used to control these medical issues.
Weight is also an issue with aging. As people age, their diets often catch up with them, and packing on the extra pounds can lead to snoring problems at night — and can also lead to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which causes disrupted sleep while the sufferer gasps for breath.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) has observed: “As we age, there is an increased incidence of medical problems, which are often chronic. In general, people with poor health or chronic medical conditions have more sleep problems. For example, hypertension is associated with both snoring and OSA and heart failure — which affects approximately 5 million Americans — is linked with OSA. In addition, menopause and its accompanying hot flashes, changes in breathing, and decreasing hormone levels can lead to many restless nights.”
If you experience sleep problems at any age that rob you of robust days, you should seek professional help. There is no need to accept sleep disruptions when help is readily available, starting with your family physician and then escalating to the sleep experts.