Do you ever wish you could literally sleep like a baby again?  Sleep does not come easy for many of us, and it becomes even more problematic as we age.  Of course, that’s not true for everyone, like my husband snoring next to me as I write this.  However, it is a fact that the older we get, the more problems we have falling asleep and staying asleep.  In fact, researchers estimate that between 40% and 70% of older adults have chronic sleep issues, and up to half of those cases may go undiagnosed.  So why do sleep patterns change as we age, and what can we do about it?


Changes in Circadian Rhythm


There are many theories as to why sleep patterns change the older that we get.  The most common one is that we have a master clock in our brain, which changes over time.   This clock is called the hypothalamus.  Composed of about 20,000 cells that form the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), it controls 24-hour daily cycles called circadian rhythms.  These rhythms affect daily processes like when we get hungry, when certain hormones are released and when we feel sleepy.  But like other parts of our body affected by age, the SCN starts to deteriorate and can disrupt those rhythms.  One of the suspected causes is that light is one of the essential cues maintaining circadian rhythms. Studies show that many older people have insufficient exposure to daylight averaging around one hour per day.


Decrease in Hormones


Hormonal changes also are thought to play a part in sleeplessness.  As people age, the body secretes less Melatonin which helps to regulate day and night cycles.`  Another hormone that is important for sleep is cortisol which is made by your adrenal glands.   It acts as your body’s primary stress hormone, and along with certain parts of your brain, it controls your mood, motivation, and fear.  Among other vital functions aided by cortisol are your sleep and wake cycle.


Underlying Health Conditions


Both mental and physical health conditions can affect your sleep.  For example, people suffering from mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety can have insomnia.  Physical illness that causes pain or discomfort, such as arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes, can also affect sleep.  A National Sleep Foundation study found that 24% of people between 65 and 84 years old reported being diagnosed with four or more health conditions and were more likely to report getting less than six hours of sleep, having poor sleep quality, and experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder.  Another factor contributing to sleep quality is the side effects of certain medications, and almost 40% of adults over the age of 65 take five or more medications.  Drugs such as antidepressants and corticosteroids are known to contribute to insomnia.


Sleep Apnea


Obstructive sleep apnea can cause pauses in breathing during sleep and are related to a repeated collapse (apnea) or partial collapse (hypopnea) of the upper airway.  Sleep apnea most frequently affects older men but can also affect women and children.  Obstructive sleep apnea can have a series of adverse side effects, such as lower energy levels and drowsiness during the day.




While the problem of getting a good night’s sleep tends to increase with age, the recommended steps to mitigate it are the same regardless.   FirstLantic provides some tips below that might help give you some relief:


  • Regular exercise, regardless of age, can help people become healthier and sleep better.


  • Remove distractions from the bedroom such as T.V.’s, phones and reduce exposure to light from electronics.


  • Get into a routine at night, such as enjoying a bath, reading a book, or practicing meditation or breathing exercises.


  • Stick to a schedule and try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Also, try to avoid napping or take cat naps (shorter naps).


  • Avoid substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, and do not eat large meals at night.


  • Spend more time outdoors as more exposure to daylight can positively affect your circadian rhythm.


  • Try scented oils that are known to help with relaxation, such as lavender, bergamot, and valerian.


  • Take supplements such as Melatonin but check with your doctor first. Also, if you think that certain medications are interrupting your sleep, speak with your doctor as well about possible substitutions.



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