As you age, the way your brain handles sleep changes a great deal.
The amount of sleep you need, the times you feel most tired, and your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep all undergo major shifts, and understanding how all of this works is critical for maintaining proper health.
Here’s what you need to know about the correlation between aging and sleep patterns.
Do Older People Need Less Sleep?
Part of what makes this question so complicated is that older people do, in fact, need slightly less sleep.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the typical person over 65 needs only between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night, while in some edge cases, between 5 and 9 hours may be appropriate.
The typical adult aged 26 to 64, meanwhile, requires between 7 and 9 hours per night, while some edge cases might need between 6 and 10 hours to feel well-rested.
So it’s true, there is some decline in the amount of overall sleep you need.
However, it’s certainly not as substantial as some might think – probably no more than half an hour to an hour at most.
Your Inner Clock Changes
But while your needs might only shift by a modest degree, much more major changes are happening elsewhere in the brain.
Many of these have to do with your circadian rhythms – the roughly once-daily hormonal cycles that influence most of your body’s major organs.
The most famous of these circadian rhythms is probably the sleep/wake cycle, which determines when you’re most energized and when you’re ready for sleep.
How the Sleep/Wake Cycle Works
You can think of the SCN as something like a control center.
It keeps track of the time of day, and when it decides it’s time to go to sleep, it starts sending signals to the pineal gland to start releasing the sleep hormone melatonin.
The SCN keeps time primarily by reacting to the light levels present in your environment.
When a low amount of light is hitting your retina, the SCN knows it’s getting towards evening and time to go to bed.
Older Brains are Early Birds
In older adults, however, your sleep/wake cycle becomes much less responsive to change.
While younger people might get over, say, jetlag in the space of a couple days, the older you get, the harder it is for you to adapt to those kinds of differences.
Additionally, for reasons researchers are still working to fully understand, the your sleep/wake cycle tends to be pushed back by several hours as you enter your twilight years.
Older adults are typically more awake in the morning and tired at night than younger people, and are far less adaptive to unusual or irregular sleep schedules.
Older Brains Release Less Melatonin
In addition to leaning more towards mornings than their younger counterparts, older folks’ brains also tend to release less melatonin with age.
Sometimes, this can result from the pineal gland calcification that sometimes comes with certain age-related diseases.
However, older pineal glands may also tend to produce less melatonin in general, regardless of what conditions you have.
Because melatonin is so closely tied to sleep, this means that you might have trouble feel as tired as you once did, even though you know you need the sleep.
Older Folks Often Don’t Get Enough Sleep
So, what are the big takeaways from all of this?
Well, for starters, older people really do tend to need less sleep.
However, this change isn’t that substantial, and only amounts to at most half an hour to an hour less required sleep.
Other changes in older people’s brains include an increased preference for mornings, as well as an overall decline in melatonin production.
So, does all of this just cancel itself out?
Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer seems to be a hard no.
Even though older people in general need less sleep, they’re still typically getting far less sleep than would be ideal.
Not only do older adults tend to lie awake for more time before they finally get to sleep, but their sleep is often punctuated by periods of wakefulness throughout the night.
Additionally, many may find themselves waking up long before their alarm, unable to get back to sleep.
The amount of deep sleep you experience also tends to decline, as well as the amount of time you spend in REM sleep, where most dreaming occurs.
This means you’re skipping out on many of sleep’s most restorative powers.
Both the quantity and the quality of a person’s sleep tend to decline with time, while insomnia rates only climb.
Up to 50% of older adults complain about trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and studies have found insomnia rates between 30% and 48% among the elderly.
Overall, older adults are sleeping less and worse than their younger counterparts.
How Can You Improve Your Sleep?
So now, the million dollar question.
With so many challenges to sleep as you age, what will it take to get you sleeping properly again?
While there is no single answer, quite a bit of research has been invested into solving this dilemma.
First and foremost, you’ll always want to rely on the advice of professionals who you can visit with in person.
In a minute, we’ll be talking about techniques that have tended to work with large numbers of people over the years.
However, sleep is highly personalized, and not all of these techniques will work for everyone.
In fact, some may even backfire!
Because of this, it’s best to pay a visit to a sleep specialist in person if lack of sleep is majorly impacting your quality of life.
Get Fresh Air and Exercise
One option your specialist if likely to recommend involves two classic steps to wellness: fresh air and exercise.
You’ve probably heard about the benefits of exercise when it comes to sleep.
And it’s true – regular, moderate exercise has been shown to provide overall better sleep among older adults.
For best results, though, you’ll want to take this activity outside, in the sun.
As we mentioned earlier, light levels play a critical role in the regular release of your body’s sleep hormones.
While this is often most obvious at night, when you’re trying to get to sleep, exposure to bright lights throughout the day is just as important to establishing regular hormone release in the evenings.
Going for a jog or even just a walk in the mornings is more than just a way to jumpstart your day – it’s also a way to power down properly at night!
Now, if you live in an area where it’s often rainy during the parts of the day you’d want to be outside, or if you have trouble going outside to enjoy the sunlight at all, don’t worry.
You still have options.
In fact, light therapy lamps have found a great deal of success in controlling insomnia.
You just sit in front of the lamp for a certain amount of time each day, and you may find it easier to fall asleep come night.
Establish a Regular Schedule
Another healthy technique is to simply establish a regular sleep schedule.
Your body doesn’t just automatically know when to release the hormones you need to get a good night’s sleep.
You need to teach it to recognize when you’re going to go to bed and when you’re going to wake up – and to do that, you’re going to need a good degree of consistency.
Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is a great way to show your brain what you need it to do.
The more consistent you can make your sleep/wake schedule, the more consistent sleep/wake cycle will be.
Avoid Bright Lights at Night
Additionally, just as exposing yourself to bright lights during the day can make for better sleep, so too does avoiding bright, artificial lights at night.
If the lights in your house come with any dimmer switches, turn them down starting at least half an hour before heading off to bed.
More than that, though, you’ll also want to avoid electronics as much as possible when it’s getting close to bedtime.
The LED screens of most modern televisions, computers, cellphones and tablets all emit large amounts of blue wavelength light, which has been found to be especially disruptive of the sleep/wake cycle.
Instead of looking at one of your many devices when it’s getting towards night, you might consider doing a more soothing activity, such as reading a book or listening to some music.
Again, this will become especially helpful if you do it regularly, since that gives your brain the signal that you’ll be going to sleep soon.
Sleep gets harder as you age, and there’s no getting around that.
However, with positive attitude and the right methods, a good night’s sleep can be more than just a dream.
I hope this has been helpful.
Good night, and good luck!