Sleep Through the Decades

How sleep changes with age, once you're an adult.

From the WebMD Archives


“They go to bed much earlier in the evening and wake up much earlier in the morning,” Simpson says. “The system becomes deregulated and loose, and they kind of unlearn the rhythms of sleep.”

Basically, the elderly revert back to the sleep schedule and patterns of very young children.

“They also wake up many more times during the night than younger adults,” Chokroverty says. “This is why they take naps during the day.”

One way to treat this problem is with bright light therapy in the morning and early evening.

“A good blast of sunlight in the late afternoon and early evening, combined with a little exercise, seems to help people push their clock later and, in turn, wake up later,” Simpson says.

Women, Men, and Sleep

For men, sleep problems tend to get progressively worse with age.

“Primary sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, circadian rhythm disturbances, and things like restless legs syndrome-they all are worse in the 30s than in the 20s, worse in the 40s than in the 30s, and so on,” Simpson says. “For men, it’s more or less a linear progression.”

But for a woman, sleep patterns tend to be fairly stable until one of two things happen: She gets pregnant or she goes through menopause.

“Pregnant women see an increase in sleep problems in the first and last trimester. During the first trimester, sleep problems are caused by hormonal changes, and during the last trimester, the baby is larger and creates pressure on the diaphragm, which creates breathing problems,” Chokroverty says. “The baby also puts pressure on the bladder, so a pregnant woman needs to wake up during the night to urinate. Lower back pain and stress and anxiety during the last trimester also cause sleep disturbances.”

About 25% of pregnant women also have restless legs syndrome -- a disorder involving the urge to move the legs to stop unpleasant sensations like prickling or crawling.

And then there’s menopause.

“It truly is cruel,” Simpson says. "Women may have had no problems with sleep their whole lives, except they can’t get any because their children or their job are keeping them up. Then they get the kids raised and the job slows down, and their sleep patterns go absolutely haywire. During menopause, women’s rates of insomnia go through the roof, and their rates of sleep apnea become more or less equivalent to men.”

For these and other sleep disruptions, Simpson advocates trying alternative options before turning to medications.“Instead, start by treating sleep problems with things like breathing exercises, yoga, improving your sleep hygiene by creating a more restful environment in your bedroom, and cognitive and behavioral therapy,” Simpson says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 20, 2010



Sudhansu Chokroverty, MD, professor and co-chair of neurology, program director for clinical neurophysiology and sleep medicine, the New Jersey Neuroscience Institute, JFK Medical Center, Edison, N.J.; professor of neuroscience, Seton Hall University School of Health and Medicine.

Robert Simpson, MD, assistant professor, division of pulmonary medicine, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

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