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Sleep patterns naturally change as you get older. Compared to younger people, older adults:

  • Sleep fewer hours and take longer to fall asleep.
  • Sleep less deeply and wake up more often during the night.
  • Have more trouble adjusting to changes in sleeping conditions, such as a different bed.
  • Have changes in their sleep cycle. Older adults spend less time in the most restful stages of sleep.

It's common for older adults to sleep less deeply and for less time than they did earlier in life. But these normal changes in the sleep patterns of older adults do not mean that the sleep they get is enough.

Routine poor-quality sleep caused by health problems, medicine use, and stress from major life changes can lead to chronic sleep problems at any age. This may increase the risk of serious health problems, such as depression. But few older adults get, or try to get, treatment for sleep problems. If you are an older adult and have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about what you can do to improve your sleep.

Tips for improving sleep for older adults

Here are some things you can try:

  • Get regular exercise and sunshine during the day.
  • Keep the bedroom cool, quiet, and dark in the evening and night.
  • Keep food and snacks out of the bed, if possible.
  • Get out of bed if you are unable to sleep.
  • Limit or reduce the need to wake up at night, such as for medicines.
  • Follow the same evening and bedtime routines.

If you care for an older adult who isn't sleeping well, you might encourage him or her to try the above tips for improving sleep.

Sleep medicines

Doctors recommend taking sleep medicines only now and then or only for a short time. They are not the first choice for treating chronic insomnia. This advice about medicines applies to everyone, but especially to older adults. Anyone can become dependent on sleep medicines, and these medicines can affect how well older people think during and after long-term use.1

  • Insomnia
  • Sleep Problems, Age 12 and Older

Citations

  1. Martin JL, et al. (2007). Sleep disorders. In RJ Ham et al., eds., Primary Care Geriatrics: A Case-Based Approach, 5th ed., pp. 391–400. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.


By: Healthwise Staff Last Revised: December 1, 2011
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Lisa S. Weinstock, MD - Psychiatry

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