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Aging changes in sleep


Sleep occurs in multiple stages. The sleep cycle includes dreamless periods of light and deep sleep, with occasional periods of active dreaming (REM sleep). The sleep cycle is repeated several times during the night.

With aging, sleep patterns tend to change. Most people find that aging causes them to have a harder time falling asleep, and that they awaken more often.

Total sleep time remains the same or is slightly decreased (6.5 to 7 hours per night). It may be harder to fall asleep. The transition between sleep and awake is often abrupt, giving older people the feeling of being more of a "light sleeper" than when they were younger.

Less time is spent in deep, dreamless sleep. Older people average 3 or 4 awakenings each night, with increased recall of being awake.

Awakenings are related to less time spent in deep sleep, and to factors such as need to get up to urinate ( nocturia ), anxiety , and discomfort or pain associated with chronic illnesses.

Sleeping difficulty is an annoying problem, but it is seldom dangerous. Because sleep is lighter and awakenings more frequent, older people may feel deprived of sleep even when total sleep time has not changed.

Sleep deprivation can eventually cause confusion and other mental changes . It is treatable, and symptoms should lessen when adequate sleep is obtained. Sleep problems are also a common symptom of depression, so you should be evaluated and treated for depression if it is causing the problem.


  • Insomnia is one of the more common sleep problems for the elderly.
  • Other sleep disorders , such as narcolepsy or hypersomnia , can also occur.
  • Sleep apnea , where the breathing stops for a time during sleep, can cause severe problems.

The elderly respond differently to medications than younger adults, so it is VERY important to consult with a health care provider before taking medications for sleep. Avoid sleep medications if at all possible. Medications for depression, on the other hand, can be very helpful if this is the cause of the sleep problem. Most antidepressants do not produce the problems associated with sleeping medications.

Sometimes a mild antihistamine is more effective than an actual "sleeping pill" for relieving short-term insomnia.

Sleeping medications (such as benzodiazepines) should be used only as recommended, and only for a short time. Some can lead to dependence (needing to take the drug to function) or addiction (compulsive use despite adverse consequences) in some cases. Some build up in your body, and toxic effects can develop if you take them for a long time. Confusion, delirium , falls, and other side effects can develop.

You can take measures to promote sleep.

  • Exercise (moderately) in the afternoon.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine (found in coffee , tea, cola drinks and so on) for at least 3 or 4 hours before bed.
  • A light bedtime snack may be helpful. Many people find that warm milk increases sleepiness (because it contains a natural sedative-like amino acid).
  • Try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time each morning.
  • Do not take naps during the day.
  • Use the bed only for sleep or sexual activity.

If you can't fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a quiet activity such as reading or listening to music.

When you feel sleepy, get back in bed and try again. If not successful in 20 minutes, repeat.

Alcohol at bedtime may make you sleepy , but try to avoid it because alcohol also increases awakenings later in the night.


  • Aging changes in the nervous system
  • Insomnia

Update Date: 10/31/2002

Steven Angelo, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine, Yale School of Medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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Last updated: Tue, 06 Jan 2009 00:20:03 GMT