Does ageing affect sleep?

Last Updated on August 23, 2021

Many health concerns, including sleep difficulties, are related to ageing. Actually, the quality of life can be affected by poor sleep in people over the age of 65.

Understanding the effects of ageing on health is more important than ever to address older adults’ needs. In order to promote overall health in the elderly, it is necessary to review the relationship between ageing and sleep. Especially since we spend a third of our lives sleeping. That’s why in today’s guide, we’ll try to explain:

  • How does ageing affect sleep?
  • Why is it affected?
  • How to prevent those sleep changes?

How does ageing affect sleep?

Does ageing affect sleep?

The effects of ageing are different for people. Older adults complain about getting less sleep and having worse sleep quality, while some have no disruptions in their sleep whatsoever. Experts have found several common sleep disturbances in seniors. They are the following:

Pain

Arthritis, back problems, GERD (chronic acid reflux), diabetes, and other age-related illnesses can cause pains and aches, which can wake you up during the night. If you have back pain, physical therapy or surgery can be beneficial. Your doctor might be able to treat it as well as other underlying illnesses. It is also possible to reduce pain and inflammation with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, so you can get the rest you need.

Medication

As you get older, drugs for heart disease, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s, and thyroid problems might interrupt your sleep. And age combined with some medications is more likely to keep you up due to the stimulant pseudoephedrine in over-the-counter decongestants. Your doctor might be able to adjust or change your medication if it affects your sleep. That’s why if there is an occurring issue, you should speak with a professional.

Waking up at night

If you wake up more than once a night because you need to pee, your doctor might call it nocturia, which is an issue that happens more often as you get older. Illness may be the reason for this, like diabetes, heart failure, infections or and other age-related bladder problems. If you’re already having problems with your bladder, it’s advisable you avoid caffeine and alcohol in the later afternoon and evening.

If you want to learn more on the subject, you can check our guides on the ‘Effects of alcohol on sleep’ and the ‘Effects of caffeine on sleep’. In addition, your doctor can prescribe water pills (diuretics) and other drugs to help you pee earlier in the day or reduce the need to go at night.

Menopause

As you stop having your period and enter menopause (typically in your middle age), your body will slowly stop making the hormones estrogen and progesterone. This causes hot flashes in which you wake up with a surge of adrenaline, and it’s possible that it happens many times a night.

Another issue regarding menopause can be your body getting too hot and sweaty, which can disrupt your rest. If you are a hot sleeper, take a look at our article about ‘Tips on how to stay cool at night’. But if you want these flashes to stop, you can do so with the help of hormones prescribed by your doctor.

Neurological illness

Neurological illnesses typically cause problems with electrical signals in your brain and nervous system. For example, Parkinson’s can cause movements that wake you or interfere with your sleep in other ways. In comparison, Alzheimer’s makes some people restless around the time they usually go to bed, which can lead to sleep deprivation. If you have one of these types of illnesses, we highly recommend you speak with your doctor so he can help you treat the symptoms of these conditions.

Sleep rhythm changes

With age, you can often feel sleepier earlier in the evening and wake up in the early hours of the morning. It can be helpful to listen to your body’s natural rhythms as this shifts so that you get a good night’s sleep. Having a soothing evening routine and good sleep hygiene can help ease you to go to bed. You can also relax by reading a book or listening to calming music. A hot shower and some light stretching exercises can also promote sleepiness.

Mental health

Depression and other mental health issues can come up as you get older. People with mood disorders like depression are more likely to have sleep problems caused by a sudden event or difficult period in their life. Or, it could be that you start to worry more about everyday events and tasks. If your mood is affecting your sleep, you should talk to your doctor.

Naps during the day

You may find yourself with more time to sleep as you get older, either unintentionally or on purpose. If you don’t sleep well at night, naps may not be a good idea in the late afternoon or evening because you might not feel tired enough at bedtime. That can make it harder to get up in the morning because of the disrupted sleep routine.

Heart issues

Shortness of breath from heart failure, chest pain from angina and a racing pulse from atrial fibrillation are some of the heart problems that can interfere with your sleep. There is an unfortunate cycle in which less sleep can lead to more heart issues. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor. You can find out how to manage an underlying condition with lifestyle changes, medication, surgery or other treatments.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which you snore so intensely that you repeatedly cut off your breathing while you sleep. Even though it can affect anyone, it is more likely to occur after the age of 40. As a result, you might be sleepy the next day because of the lack of sleep you’ve experienced the night before. Sometimes this can be related to you carrying a few extra pounds. Your best bet is to speak with a professional who can test you to see if you have it and help you treat it.

Restless legs syndrome

RLS, also known as restless leg syndrome, is an issue that causes your legs to move even when you don’t want them to. It can keep you up due to strange sensations in your legs, such as pins and needles or even skin crawls. When it includes your arms, it is called periodic limb movement disorder, which we will discuss next. About 20% of people over the age of 80 have RLS. If you are one of those people, your doctor may be able to help you manage the occurring symptoms.

Periodic limb movement disorder

PLMD is a condition in which you kick your legs and arms while you sleep. However, most of the time, you don’t realize you’re doing so. Thus, you can find that out if you have a bed partner who tells you about it. PLMD can prevent you from getting a good night’s rest and cause daytime fatigue and sleepiness. Some individuals may have both RLS and PLMD.

Why does ageing affect sleep?

Why does ageing affect sleep?

Changes in the quality and duration of sleep can be experienced by older adults. Many of these alterations will occur due to changes in their body’s internal clock. A part of the brain called the hypothalamus is home to our master clock, which is made up of 20,000 cells, forming the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN).

The SCN is responsible for controlling our daily cycles, also known as circadian rhythm. When a person feels sleepy or alert, the body releases certain hormones. As people get older, the effects of an ageing SCN affect their sleep. The suprachiasmatic nucleus receives information from your eyes, meaning light is one of the most powerful factors for maintaining circadian rhythms. However, according to research, many older people don’t get enough exposure to daylight, which can be even more restricted for people who live in nursing homes.

Older adults are more likely to have disrupted sleep because of changes in the production of hormones such as melatonin and cortisol. As people age, their bodies secretes less and less melatonin, which is normally produced in response to darkness, helping promote sleep by coordinating circadian rhythms.

Mental and physical health issues may also interfere with sleep. For example, depression, anxiety, heart disease, and diabetes are some of the conditions that affect sleep in older people. In addition, many older individuals are diagnosed with more than one health condition, which makes the relationship between physical health and sleep complicated.

According to a study, 26% of people between 65 and 84 years old were diagnosed with four or more health conditions. People with multiple health conditions were more likely to report that they got less than six hours of sleep, had poor sleep quality, and experienced symptoms of a sleep disorder.

Sleep issues may be related to the side effects of drugs and medication. Around 40% of people over the age of 65 take five or more medications, contributing to sleep issues. For example, antihistamines and opiates may cause daytime drowsiness, while antidepressants and corticosteroids might keep you awake and contribute to insomnia symptoms.

The lifestyle changes that come with ageing can affect sleep quality in seniors. Retirement may lead to less working outside of the home, more napping, and less of a structured sleep schedule. Significant life changes, such as loss of independence and social isolation, can increase stress and anxiety, contributing to sleep issues.

How to prevent sleep changes?

How to prevent sleep changes?

Older people respond differently to medicines compared to younger individuals. If you’re planning to take sleep medicines, you must talk with a provider first. If it is possible, you should avoid sleep medicines in general. With that said, antidepressant medicaments can be very beneficial if depression affects your quality of sleep. Some antidepressants and sleep medicines have the same side effects.

For example, for short-term insomnia, a sleeping pill might not work as good as a mild antihistamine. As a result, the majority of health experts don’t recommend these types of medicines for older individuals.

Only use sleep medicines if they’ve been prescribed and only for a short period. There are some medicines that can lead to dependence or addiction, making you need the drug to function. Other drugs build up in your body, and you can develop toxic effects like confusion, delirium, and falls if you take them for a more extended period.

You can take measures to help you sleep in multiple ways. You can try a warm drink before bed, such as milk, which increases sleepiness due to the natural, sedative-like amino acid. You can also avoid stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco at least four hours prior to your bedtime.

As we’ve mentioned, with ageing, you start taking naps regularly, but that’s something you shouldn’t do during the day. Also, it will be great if you try and exercise on a regular basis (within 3 hours of your bedtime). 

Generally, you should say away from stimulation, such as violent TV shows or computer games and try to practice relaxation techniques before sleep. Every electronic device that emits blue light can be harmful to your quality of sleep. 

Having a sleep schedule that helps you go to bed simultaneously every night and wake at the same time each morning can improve your rest and lessen your waking’s. However, if you are concerned that any of the medicines you take may affect your sleep, you should contact your doctor. 

Bottom line

To conclude our guide on ‘Does ageing affect sleep’, we would like to say that insufficient rest in adults can lead to a higher risk of falls and accidents. This can be caused by multiple reasons such as medication, pain, menopause, etc.

As people age, it is helpful to make changes to your bedroom environment to reduce the risk of accidents and make it easier to call for help when needed. We hope we were able to answer the how and why, and now it’s our turn to hear from you if any questions regarding the subject were left unanswered. If you want to share some information, we would gladly hear about it in the comments below.

Isabelle Harris
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