Aging and Sleep: How Does Growing Old Affect Sleep?

As we get older, our bodies go through a number of changes – some of them welcome, some not so much.

Published On:
October 1, 2023

As we get older, our bodies go through a number of changes – some of them welcome, some not so much. One change that many people experience as they age is a noticeable shift in their sleeping patterns. But why does this happen? And what can we do about it?

Why Does Aging Affects Sleep?

There are several factors that can contribute to sleep problems in older adults:

Decline in melatonin production

As we age, our bodies produce less of the sleep hormone melatonin. This can make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. For example, a 65-year-old may only produce half as much melatonin as a 25-year-old.

Changes in circadian rhythms

As we get older, we may experience changes in our circadian rhythms. These are the natural internal processes that regulate our sleep-wake cycles. For example, older adults may find it harder to get into a regular sleep-wake cycle, which can result in more daytime napping and nighttime waking.

Underlying health conditions

Chronic pain, arthritis, and other conditions can make it difficult to get comfortable enough to sleep. For example, someone with arthritis may experience joint pain that makes it difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position. Sleep apnea is also more common in older adults, which can cause breathing difficulties and frequent awakenings throughout the night.

How Does Aging Affect Sleep?

Aging can affect sleep in many ways:

Chronic health conditions

The older we get, the more likely we are to develop chronic health conditions that can interfere with sleep. For example, heart disease can cause shortness of breath and chest discomfort that make it difficult to sleep, while diabetes can cause frequent urination that disrupts sleep. Depression is also more common in older adults and has been linked to sleep disturbances.

Changes in sleep structure

As we age, we tend to spend less time in deep sleep and more time in light sleep. This means that our bodies may not be getting the restorative benefits of deep sleep that they once did. For example, a 70-year-old may spend only 5% of their night in deep sleep, compared to 20% for a 20-year-old.

Frequent awakenings

Older adults may experience more frequent awakenings during the night. This can be due to a number of factors, including an increased need to use the bathroom or discomfort caused by medical conditions such as arthritis. For example, someone with arthritis may wake up frequently due to joint pain.

Individual differences

It's important to remember that everyone's sleep needs are different. While some older adults may find that they need fewer hours of sleep than they did when they were younger, others may still require a full eight hours or more per night. For example, an 80-year-old may feel rested after just six hours of sleep, while another 80-year-old may need nine hours to feel fully rested.

How Much Sleep Do Older Adults Need?

While everyone's sleep needs are different, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that older adults aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night. However, it's important to note that some older adults may find they need more or less sleep than this depending on their individual needs and health conditions.

It's also important for older adults to prioritize good sleep hygiene habits, such as keeping a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine. These habits can help promote better quality sleep and reduce the risk of sleep disturbances.

If an older adult is consistently having trouble sleeping despite practicing good sleep hygiene habits, it may be helpful to talk to a healthcare provider about potential underlying causes and treatment options.

Common Sleep Issues in Older Adults

While aging can affect sleep in many ways, there are some common sleep issues that older adults may experience:


Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that affects people of all ages, but it's particularly prevalent in older adults. Insomnia can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night. It can also cause you to wake up too early in the morning and feel tired during the day.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition where your breathing stops and starts repeatedly during the night. This can cause you to snore loudly and wake up feeling tired, even after a full night's sleep. Sleep apnea is more common in older adults, especially those who are overweight or have high blood pressure.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

Restless leg syndrome is a neurological disorder that causes an uncomfortable sensation in your legs and an irresistible urge to move them. RLS can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD)

Periodic limb movement disorder is a condition where your legs twitch or jerk involuntarily during the night. This can disrupt your sleep and cause you to wake up feeling tired.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Circadian rhythm disorders occur when your internal body clock is out of sync with the external environment. This can cause you to feel sleepy during the day and awake at night, making it difficult to get enough restful sleep at night.

It's important to talk to your doctor if you're experiencing any of these common sleep issues as they may be able to recommend treatments or strategies that can help improve your quality of sleep.

Common Causes of Sleep Problems in Older Adults

While there are several factors that can contribute to sleep problems in older adults, some common causes include:


Many medications can interfere with sleep, especially in older adults. For example, diuretics used to treat high blood pressure can increase the need to urinate during the night, while antidepressants and stimulants can disrupt sleep patterns.

Stress and Anxiety

As we age, we may experience more stress related to health concerns, financial worries or social isolation. This stress can cause anxiety that interferes with falling asleep and staying asleep.

Poor Sleep Habits

Poor sleep habits such as irregular sleeping schedules, napping during the day or engaging in stimulating activities before bedtime can make it difficult for older adults to fall asleep at night.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors such as noise, light pollution or an uncomfortable sleeping environment can contribute to poor quality sleep. For example, someone who lives near a busy road may be kept awake by traffic noise throughout the night.

By addressing these common causes of sleep problems in older adults, it's possible to improve overall sleep quality and reduce the risk of developing more serious sleep disorders.

Sleep Tips for Older Adults

While aging can affect sleep, there are things you can do to improve your chances of getting a good night's rest. Here are some tips specifically for older adults:

Establish a bedtime routine

Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This will help regulate your body's internal clock and make it easier to fall asleep and wake up.

Create a comfortable sleep environment

Make sure your bedroom is cool, quiet, and dark. Use earplugs or a white noise machine if necessary. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows that support your body.

Limit caffeine and alcohol intake

Caffeine can stay in your system for several hours and interfere with sleep. Try to avoid caffeine after noon. While alcohol may initially make you feel drowsy, it can actually disrupt sleep later in the night.

Stay active during the day

Regular exercise can help improve the quality of your sleep. Just make sure not to exercise too close to bedtime as it can make it harder to fall asleep.

Avoid napping during the day

If you're having trouble sleeping at night, try to avoid napping during the day. If you must nap, limit it to 30 minutes or less and try to do it early in the afternoon.

Manage stress

Stress and anxiety can keep you awake at night. Try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation before bed.

By following these tips, you may be able to improve your quality of sleep and wake up feeling more rested each morning.

Natural Remedies That May Improve Sleep Quality

It’s also worth noting that there are several natural remedies that may help improve sleep quality in older adults:

  • Herbal supplements: Some herbal supplements, such as valerian root and chamomile, have been shown to have sedative effects that can promote relaxation and improve sleep. For example, a study of valerian root found that it improved sleep quality in 44% of participants over the age of 50.
  • Relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation can also be effective in improving sleep quality in older adults. For example, a study of adults over the age of 60 found that a six-month yoga program improved sleep quality and overall well-being.
  • Lifestyle changes: Making lifestyle changes like limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, establishing a regular sleep routine, and getting regular exercise can also help improve sleep quality in older adults. For example, a study of adults over the age of 65 found that engaging in moderate physical activity for at least 150 minutes per week improved sleep quality.

Treatments for Sleep Disorders

There are several treatments available for sleep disorders in older adults. The treatment plan will depend on the type and severity of the sleep disorder, as well as any underlying health conditions.

For example, for sleep apnea, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine may be recommended to help keep the airway open during sleep. Alternatively, surgery may be an option for those with severe cases of sleep apnea.

For insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in helping older adults develop healthy sleep habits and address any underlying anxiety or stress that may be contributing to their sleep difficulties. Medications such as benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics may also be prescribed for short-term use.

For restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder, medications such as dopamine agonists or anticonvulsants may be prescribed to help reduce symptoms.

It's important to work closely with a healthcare provider to develop an individualized treatment plan that addresses your specific needs and concerns. With proper treatment, many older adults are able to improve their quality of sleep and enjoy better overall health and well-being.


In conclusion, while aging can certainly have an impact on our sleeping patterns, there are a number of steps we can take to mitigate these effects. By establishing a regular sleep routine, creating a sleep-friendly environment, and seeking medical treatment when necessary, older adults can enjoy restful, rejuvenating sleep for years to come.


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