How aging affects sleep in adults

Most people know of the dramatic changes in sleep experienced by newborns and infants as they quickly grow.  Far fewer are aware of the less dramatic but ongoing changes in sleep experienced throughout life, yet these changes — while normal and expected — can and often do generate worry about sleep that often fuels insomnia.

Sleep really is a moving target throughout life, constantly changing.  A newborn baby might sleep 16 hours a day, but by adulthood that number on average is reduced by half.

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Duration is only one parameter of sleep that changes.  The percentage of time spent in dream or REM sleep is also reduced by roughly half or more as we age, and the amount of time we spend in the deepest NREM stages is also significantly reduced.  The elderly in fact may spend the majority of the night in stage two, the lightest form of true sleep.

Middle-of-the-night awakenings can also become more problematic as we age, yet such wake-ups are normal and to be expected for even the best sleepers.  On an average night, even the most robust sleepers will awaken some 10 to 15 times, typically between the normal sleep cycles, and when changing sleep positions during the night.

As we age, some of us also tend to fret more about these normal interruptions in sleep.  Insomniacs, in particular, tend to worry that such benign awakenings might be some internal defect that’s robbing them of sleep.  Then, instead of falling back asleep quickly as normal sleepers do, insomniacs move toward a more alert state of worried wakefulness that makes sleep more difficult.  The difference is good sleepers pay no mind to such awakenings and fall back asleep quickly.  By morning they are typically forgotten.

In addition, hot flashes, arthritic pain, a decreased bladder capacity, any of the common health issues associated with age may cause more awakenings in the night.  And because sleep tends to get lighter and more fragmented, we can be awakened more easily by external noises that earlier in life we might have slept through.

This is why lighter sleep and more short-term awakenings can be expected as a normal consequence of aging.  For insomniacs, knowing it’s normal and not some internal problem may make it easier to accept such awakenings and let go the worry, thereby reducing insomnia’s negative fuel.

Learning better, more realistic concepts of the normal sleep process is a key part of the solution for many insomniacs.  Many find that better understanding by itself is often helpful in restoring lost sleep.

Explore posts in the same categories: anxiety, Insomnia, sleep

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