How do my sleep habits change as I age?

Tips for Improving Sleep in the Elderly

Sleep presents a classic catch-22 scenario for the aging: A bad night's sleep in an elderly adult is usually caused by a condition or its medication, but a lack of sleep only worsens the condition, thus making satisfying sleep an even more impossible prospect. In one study, researchers found that a night of fragmented sleep caused major problems in the body's response to pain, so that subjects felt pain more easily, demonstrated increased inability to deal with it and developed additional pain in the form of headaches and backaches [source: Kolata]. This is just adding insult to injury if chronic pain is the factor that kept you from sleeping in the first place.

In another study, which followed nearly 3,000 women over the age of 70, subjects who got less than five hours of sleep per night were 47 percent more likely to fall at some point during the year they were monitored [source: Bakalar]. A lack of sleep can also cause memory problems and depression, not to mention the decreased quality of life that comes with being tired and grumpy all day.

Are the elderly doomed to march on, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived? Of course not. If you experience sleep problems that are related to another medical condition, speak to your doctor about the problem -- making a minor tweak, such as the time you take your medications, could make a huge difference.

Many elderly people and their doctors are too quick, however, to turn to another medication to address the sleep issue. According to a study conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, sleeping pills are commonly overused and abused by the elderly [source: Kolata]. Sleeping pills are more likely to have adverse side effects in this group, in part because the elderly are usually taking so many other medications, raising the risk for negative drug interactions. Some side effects of sleeping pills can also mimic the symptoms of dementia.

Rather than popping another pill, consider some of the reasons that you may not be able to get to sleep, remembering that you sleep less as you age. Are you depressed and bored, using sleep as an escape from the world? Do you take a long afternoon nap and follow it up with a giant cup of coffee? Consider your habits, as well as these sleep tips:

  • Follow a regular sleeping schedule, so that you go to bed and rise at the same time each day.
  • Avoid long or frequent naps during the day.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Go outside or sit in natural light; it regulates your body's sleep-wake cycle.
  • Minimize caffeine and alcohol.
  • Use your bed for sleeping only; if you don't fall asleep in 15 minutes, get up, move to a chair and try another activity.

For more on how aging affects the human body, see the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • "A Good Night's Sleep." National Institute on Aging. June 25, 2007. (April 27, 2009)
  • Bakalar, Nicholas. "Study Links Falls to Lack of Sleep." New York Times. Sept. 16, 2008. (April 27, 2009),%20aging&st=cse
  • "Changes in Sleep with Age." Harvard Healthy Sleep. Dec. 18, 2007. (April 27, 2009)
  • Elias, Marilyn. "Age and sleep play catch-up." USA Today. July 28, 2005. (April 27, 2009)
  • Kolata, Gina. "Elderly Become Addicts to Drug-Induced Sleep." New York Times. Feb. 2, 1992. (April 27, 2009),%20aging&st=cse
  • Kolata, Gina. "The Elderly Always Sleep Worse, and Other Myths of Aging." New York Times. Oct. 23, 2007. (April 27, 2009),%20aging&st=cse
  • Kryger, Meir, Andrew Monjan, Donald Bliwise and Sonia Ancoli-Israel. "Sleep, health and aging: Bridging the gap between science and clinical practice." Geriatrics. January 2004.
  • Lloyd, Robin. "Elderly Don't Need as Much Sleep, Study Finds." LiveScience. July 24, 2008. (April 27, 2009)
  • Lloyd, Robin. "Lack of Sleep Causes Old Men's Testosterone to Drop." LiveScience. April 2, 2007. (April 27, 2009)
  • "Sleep and Aging." NIH Senior Health. April 10, 2009. (April 27, 2009)
  • Yoon, In-Young, Daniel F. Kripke, Jeffrey A. Elliott, Shawn D. Youngstedt, Katharine M. Rex, and Richard L. Hauger. "Age-Related Changes of Circadian Rhythms and Sleep-Wake Cycles." Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. August 2003.