The most obvious change in sleep to older people is how light their sleep becomes. They also notice how broken up sleep is because of waking during the night and staying awake awhile before going back to sleep. Half of seniors complain of these changes as well as waking early in the morning and feeling sleepy during the day. “The problem for this age group is that it’s very difficult to get an uninterrupted seven to eight hours of sleep,” Arand says.
Recent lack of sleep. If you haven’t been sleeping well or have had insomnia, the lack of sleep affects how much sleep you need. If you’re over 65, the chance for poor sleep and insomnia is high. “The older people get, the more common insomnia becomes,” Arand says. A National Sleep Foundation poll found that 44% of older people had at least one symptom of insomnia two or more nights a week.
Sleep Challenges for Older Adults
Seniors have certain sleep changes due to aging, but sleep problems aren’t part of getting older. Vitiello says the key for better sleep when you’re older is staying healthy. Most seniors’ sleep problems are because of an illness or a medication. Seniors have poor sleep due to:
- Illness, such as arthritis or another condition that causes pain, heart or lung disease, enlarged prostate, acid reflux, or depression. In people aged 65 to 84, 20% have four or more medical conditions. Eighty percent of them say they have problems sleeping.
- Medications, especially those for high blood pressure and asthma.
- Sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless legs syndrome.
- Behavioral or social changes: retirement, lifestyle change, death of a loved one, napping, using social drugs.
- Sleep environment: Noise, heat, bright lighting, or bothersome bedding in the bedroom; moving to a new home or a nursing home.
An older person in excellent health will still probably have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep than when they were younger. Otherwise, they can expect to sleep fairly well. Vitiello studies older adults in good physical and mental health. “None of them sleep the same as they did when they were 18. I know that their sleep is radically different than younger people’s,” he says. Yet most of the healthy aging group has no sleep complaints.