Understanding and managing age-related changes in sleep

19 Dec 2023


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Have you ever found yourself waking up earlier than usual, wondering why your sleeping patterns have shifted as you age? Aging naturally brings about changes in sleep, impacting our overall well-being. Recognising and managing these changes is crucial for maintaining optimal health and quality of life.

Changes in sleeping patterns: as we age, several alterations in sleeping patterns become apparent, including increased sleep fragmentation, heightened sensitivity to external stimuli, advanced sleep timing, and longer sleep-onset latency. These changes can disrupt the quality of sleep, leading to daytime fatigue and the need to adjust daily routines to accommodate earlier bedtimes.


Potential causes of sleep disturbances in older adults

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  1. Changes in circadian rhythm: The circadian rhythm, responsible for regulating the sleep/wake cycle, experiences shifts with age. A weaker circadian arousal signal can result in drowsiness during the day and early bedtime, leading to advanced sleep-wake phase disorder. Additionally, altered circadian rhythm at night may elevate cortisol levels, contributing to increased sleep fragmentation and reduced REM sleep.
  2. Medical conditions: Various health issues, such as obesity, insomnia, cognitive impairment, and respiratory problems, can contribute to sleep disturbances in older adults. Conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and medication use may exacerbate sleep fragmentation, emphasizing the importance of addressing underlying health concerns.
  3. Poor sleep hygiene: Irregular bedtimes, excessive exposure to light at night, consumption of caffeinated drinks, and poor sleep hygiene practices can affect sleep quality in individuals of all ages, including older adults. Establishing good sleep habits becomes crucial in mitigating these disruptions.


Poor Sleep and Memory Function

One significant consequence of poor sleep in older adults is impaired memory function, particularly sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Changes in circadian rhythm, REM sleep, melatonin secretion, cortisol levels, and reduced deep sleep collectively hinder the brain’s ability to store and retain new information, contributing to difficulties in recalling recently learned material.

Tips for Better Sleep in Older Adults:

  1. Regulate Sleeping and Waking Time: Maintain a consistent sleep schedule to regulate the circadian rhythm and maximize deep sleep. Avoid sleeping longer or hitting the snooze button to preserve the sleep-wake cycle.
  2. Avoid Late Naps: Steer clear of late-day naps, as they can interfere with nighttime sleep. If napping, keep it short (around 20 minutes).
  3. Improve Sleeping Environment: Create a quiet, dark, and comfortable bedroom environment. Minimize exposure to external stimuli by placing electronic devices on airplane mode.
  4. Watch Dietary Habits: Avoid large meals and caffeine close to bedtime, as they can disrupt sleep. Opt for a light, early evening meal.
  5. Reduce Screen Time: Limit screen time before bedtime to signal the body that it’s time to wind down. Aim for 1-2 hours of device-free time before sleep.


Conclusion: Understanding the changes in sleep patterns and addressing their potential causes empowers older adults to manage their sleep effectively. By implementing these tips and fostering good sleep hygiene, individuals can enhance their overall well-being and age healthily through a restful night’s sleep.

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