Why do we have problems with sleep as we grow older?

Why do we have problems with sleep as we grow older?

Know what causes sleep disturbances in elderly people and how can they be treated.

Written by Shraddha Rupavate |Updated : May 22, 2014 12:25 PM IST

Sleep in elderlyThere's no doubt that sleep is an essential part of our lives. Most of us look forward to and are lucky enough to have good night's restful sleep. But, not everyone is satisfied with the amount of rest they get at nights, especially the senior citizens.

Many a times, your parents or grandparents must have complained that they can't fall asleep as quickly as they used to before, no matter how sleep deprived or tired they are. They would have complained of insomnia (sleeplessness), restless sleep or tiredness throughout the day. And now, you are also suffering from a similar problem.

Is it because the amount of sleep you need gradually decreases with age? Or is it because older people tend to take several naps during the day time? Whatever you believe the reason is, sleep problems should not be ignored. (Read: What's not letting you sleep?)

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What makes older people more vulnerable to sleep disorders?

Research suggests that the requirement of sleep remains constant throughout the life. However, there are several factors that make older people more prone to sleep disorders. But these problems can be resolved with proper a treatment approach.

Changes in sleeping pattern: Sleeping pattern involves different stages that include light sleep and deep sleep along with a dreaming stage (REM sleep). This pattern is repeated over and over again throughout the night. Research suggests that in older people, the sleeping cycle is altered such that they spend most of the night in light stage of sleep cycle rather than deep sleep. This is why older people tend to wake up even with slight disturbance in the background.

Read more about causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of insomnia.

Snoring: Snoring is the main cause of sleep problems in many adults, and it tends to worsen with age. If snoring is associated with obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), then the breathing process is occasionally interfered at nights, causing a drop in oxygen levels of the blood. This results in interrupted sleep. If sleep is interrupted multiple times during the night, it causes tiredness the next day. (Read: Sleep apnoea: Don't laugh away snoring problems!)

Changes in circadian rhythm: Ageing is naturally associated with changes in circadian rhythm (called as advanced sleep phase syndrome). That's why older people feel sleepy in the evenings and wake up early in the morning. The exact reason for this change is not understood but scientists believe that it is related to medications and treatment options taken in early stages of life.

Health conditions: Ageing increases the incidence of medical conditions. Conditions like high blood pressure, heart problems, respiratory diseases, diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) interferes with sleeping patterns in elderly. In women, menopause and accompanying changes in hormonal levels causes sleep disturbances.Neurological conditions like Parkinson's disease can also cause sleep problems. (Read: Having trouble sleeping? Get help with these expert tips!)

What can you do to improve sleep?

If you or your loved ones are experiencing problems in sleeping since a long time, do not ignore them. You could do a lot of things to improve sleep. (Read: Top five foods to help you sleep (World Sleep Day Special))

  • Stick to a sleeping routine. Try to sleep and get up at a particular time.
  • Avoid taking frequent naps during the day time. This might keep you awake at nights.
  • Be active during the day time. Go out for evening walks.
  • Reduce the intake of tea or coffee during day time. Avoid taking it before going to bed.
  • Reduce water intake before going to bed or during nights.
  • Drink some warm milk an hour before going to bed. Milk contains tryptophan which promotes relaxation and induces sleep.
  • If your sleep problem is caused due to snoring, you should keep your head raised while sleeping with the help of pillows. You can try sleeping on the sides rather than lying flat on the back to avoid obstruction of air flow.
  • Practice relaxation techniques to reduce stress. You could listen to soft music before going to sleep.
  • Avoid smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol as they are known to cause a lot of sleep disturbances.
  • If you stay awake for 20 minutes after lying down, get up and walk around or do some activity like reading a light book or watching light television programs. (Read: The Good Night ring to end snoring?)

If your sleep problems still persist, visit a doctor. Based on your age and health status your doctor may prescribe the following medications:

  • Antidepressants, if depression is causing your sleep problems
  • Hypnotics,if you are unable to fall asleep quickly
  • Anti-anxiety medicines, if anxiety causes sleeplessness

Sleep medications may lead to lot of complications and side-effects. Therefore, do not take over-the-counter sleeping pills to fall asleep. Take them only if your doctor recommends.


Nilesh Shah, Abha Bang, and Aparna Bhagat. Indian research on sleep disorders.

Susan K. Roepke & Sonia Ancoli-Israel. Sleep disorders in the elderly.

Ageing and Sleep (http://sleephealthfoundation.org.au)

Sleep and Ageing (https://nihseniorhealth.gov)

Aging and Sleep (http://www.sleepfoundation.org)

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