How Sleep Patterns Change as We Age

The amount of sleep we need – and our ability to get enough sleep – changes as we age. The time we spend sleeping each day and the quality of our sleep slowly decreases, yet older adults function best on seven to nine hours of sleep a night. So, it’s important that seniors and their caregivers do what they can to help ensure a goodnight’s sleep.

Sleep cycles are composed of REM (rapid-eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid-eye movement) sleep. NREM sleep occurs in three stages: N1 (light sleep), N2 (slightly deeper), and N3 (slow-wave deep sleep). The main difference between a child’s sleep cycle and an adult’s is the amount of time spent in the N3 stage. Children generally spend 50% of their night in deep sleep, but by age 20 that amount is cut in half. Older adults spend little time in that stage, which is a key reason why they wake easily and often.

Another factor that affects sleep patterns is circadian rhythms, which determine when the body begins to feel sleepy and when it awakens. The shift in circadian rhythm that takes place when children reach adolescence is a key reason why teens are often tired and have trouble sleeping. Circadian rhythms also change later in life, causing seniors to feel tired earlier in the evening and rise earlier in the morning.

The most common change older people notice is how interrupted their sleep is because of recent waking and trouble going back to sleep. In addition, health issues such as arthritis, gastroesophageal reflux disorder, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome can all impact sleep patterns. Insomnia also can be a side effect of medications used to treat these problems.

Unfortunately, not getting enough sleep can lead to issues including everything from irritability and cognitive impairment to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. But older adults or their caregivers can be proactive about improving the quality of sleep. Strategies include getting regular exercise, eating and drinking right, and establishing a bedtime routine. Other behavioral changes that may support a healthier sleep-wake cycle include taking only short naps during the day (no longer than 20 minutes), avoiding watching TV in bed, and limiting alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine before going to sleep.

To determine whether a senior in your care is dealing with “normal” sleep changes, talk to his or her doctor. If treatment is necessary, they can suggest behavioral therapies and/or medications for managing or eliminating the problem.

If you are interested in helping to improve the quality of life for older adults, consider becoming a certified home health aide. Dorson Vocational Training Institute offers a Certified Home Health Aide/Homemaker program that is divided into two modules: online classroom requirements and skilled requirements. Once you have completed both training modules, you can apply for licensing through the Board of Nursing.

Dorson Vocational Training Institute is fully licensed by the State of New Jersey and our courses are certified by The National Health Association. We also offer affordable tuition payment plans and access to financial aid. To learn more about our Certified Home Health Aide/Homemaker program or other healthcare classes and training programs, call us at 973-676-6300 or fill out our online form. We are happy to answer your questions.