How Does Sleep Change as we Age?

Jun 10, 2022

Aging comes with a lot of changes; some are welcome and some not so much. One of the not-so-welcome changes is deteriorating sleep quality or poor sleep quality. As you turn the years, you may have noticed that you’ve been sleeping less and less than your former self. 

Newborns typically require 16 to 18 hours of sleep every day. By the time they start school, the hours will reduce to between 11 and 12. This gradual decline continues throughout our lifetime. In adolescence and adulthood, we probably do just 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye. As we grow older, the hours reduce even more. 

But why does sleep change as we age?

It all has to do with an internal body clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). This biological clock is located in the brain in a structure called the hypothalamus. It is made up of 20,000 cells that altogether form the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN).

The primary function of the SCN is to regulate the 24-hour cycles. This essentially means it tells your body when to sleep, wake, feel hungry, conceive, be happy or sad (mood), and gain/lose weight, among other critical physiological processes.

As people age, their sleep patterns and quality change due to an aging SCN. One of the effects of this is the disruption of the circadian rhythm.

Remember that the circadian rhythm is tied to our internal clock composed of proteins and genes that operate in a feedback loop. The production of the clock’s proteins is determined by the information contained in these genes. 

Usually, these proteins are produced in a regular cyclic pattern that, in turn, regulates the genes’ activity. Any change that affects how these genes and proteins operate influences the feedback loop, and one of the casualties of such a disruption is the circadian rhythm. 

A disrupted circadian rhythm negatively affects sleep in numerous ways. For example, it can cause daytime sleepiness, insomnia, and irregular sleep patterns. This is why if you fly across several time zones, you develop a short-term sleeping disorder (jet lag disorder).

Similarly, if you do shift work where you work at night and sleep during the day, you’re likely to disrupt your circadian rhythm.

It also explains why people aged 65 years and above are likely to have sleep disorders. A 2013 survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that roughly 25% of people between 65 and 84 years have four or more health conditions.

Tellingly, these health conditions were associated mainly with poor sleep quality, sleeping less than six hours every day, or an underlying sleep disorder.

The reality is that with modern-day life, getting 7-9 hours of sleep might be a tall order. We often have to sleep late and wake up early just to keep up. It’s a rat race that sleep expert Donna Arand, Ph.D., believes is not sustainable long-term. 

The myth that people can learn to operate optimally on 5-6 hours of sleep is exactly that, a myth. And the results of trying to keep up with such a lifestyle are evident in the prevalence of sleep problems. 

It is estimated that one in three American adults suffer from sleep deprivation. Many more have at least one sleeping disorder.

 

How does REM sleep change with age?

 

It is vital that you get enough sleep. According to sleep experts, this is between 7 and 9 hours. However, to get enough sleep, it’s ideal if you understand what we refer to as the anatomy of sleep.

Sleep is not a continuous block of semi-conscious rest, as most would want to believe. Instead, it comprises four distinct sleep stages, namely, N1, N2, N3 (slow-wave [SW] sleep), and REM sleep. These are generally clustered into two phases – non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. 

The first three stages of sleep, i.e., N1, N2, and N3 (deep, slow-wave sleep), happen in the NREM sleep phase. Then REM sleep follows shortly after. According to research, restful sleep comprises 4 to 6 sleep cycles, with each cycle lasting approximately 90 minutes. 

The key to restful, restorative sleep is finishing as many cycles as possible. Obviously, this may not entirely fall within your locus of control, but you can try to get as many cycles as possible.

New research shows that the REM sleep phase is probably the most crucial. Why? Because of the importance of the ‘activities’ that take place during this phase.

The beginning of the REM sleep phase is marked by faster breathing, increased heart rate, and blood pressure. The eyes also move quicker. In fact, brain activity during REM sleep and when awake have been noted to be similar.

Researchers say the REM sleep phase is where all the good things happen. It’s associated with brain development, emotional processing, dreaming, memory, and wakefulness. If you wake up in the REM sleep phase, you feel well-rested even if you sleep for a few hours. 

However, if you wake up in the deep slow-wave sleep phase, you feel tired, groggy, and sleepy even if you’ve been sleeping for many hours.

Studies show that total sleep time (TST) and REM sleep decline with age. However, sleep stages 1 and 2 (N1, N2) increase with age. N1 and N2 are lighter sleep stages that precede REM sleep. The exact science behind this phenomenon is now clear. 

A study investigating the relationship between deep SW sleep (N3), REM sleep, cortisol levels, and growth hormone (GH) established that, indeed, N3 decreased from 18.9% in early adulthood to 3.4% in midlife (36-50 years). It was subsequently replaced by lighter sleep stages N1 and N2 without much reduction in REM sleep.

From midlife to late-life (71-83 years), the research findings showed no further decreases in SW sleep. However, there was an increase in wake-time by roughly 28 minutes per decade at the expense of N1, N2, and REM sleep stages. As a result, the REM sleep stage decreased by 10 minutes per decade. 

These declines were paralleled with major reductions in the secretion of GH. The researchers noted that from early adulthood to late life, GH secretion consistently declined. Regardless of age, GH secretion was related to SW sleep. In other words, the more GH your body secretes, the longer your slow-wave sleep phase.

The study also associated growing older with significant cortisol levels in the blood. This became more pronounced in late life when sleep was more fragmented, and REM sleep became shorter. The researchers contend that the decline of REM sleep could be linked to higher cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone. 

As the name suggests, it is released when you are stressed. However, stressors are not only external. The study showed that even partial sleep deprivation could elevate your cortisol levels. 

Therefore, sleep loss and decreased SW sleep could result from sleep fragmentation and lead to higher cortisol levels. According to multiple studies, higher cortisol levels are the hallmark of an aging process caused by a disruption to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The negative feedback is believed to underlie various cognitive and metabolic alterations.

Now let’s reword all these simply. 

There’s no doubt that we tend to sleep less as we age. This could result from taking more time to fall asleep or waking up many times during sleep. The result is that total sleep time reduces. 

This implies that the amount of time you spend in deep, seamless sleep (SW and REM sleep) decreases because you spend more time in the lighter sleep phases. 

Older people wake up several times (3-4 times) during sleep. This may be due to biological (to pee or relieve themselves), psychological (stress and anxiety), or physical reasons (pain or discomfort).

Any time they disrupt their sleep, it takes them longer to get back to sleep. This results in a cyclic pattern that disorients their circadian rhythm and sleep.

 

How much sleep do we need as we age?

 

Our sleep needs vary depending on various factors. It’s fair to assess that an active person probably needs more sleep than their less active counterpart. They need more sleep time to replenish their energy levels since they spend so much in their active engagements.

Nonetheless, the amount of sleep we need changes as we age. Starting from a newborn who needs 14 to 18 hours of sleep, the trend declines as we grow older.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that infants (4-12 months) up to preschoolers (3-5 years) need between 10 to 16 hours of sleep every day. This is inclusive of naps.

Once we attain school-going age (6-12 years) to 18 years, we are supposed to get 8-13 hours of sleep every 24 hours. As we transition into early adulthood (19-25 years) to when we reach 64 years, the recommended sleep time is 7-9 hours. Senior citizens (people over 65 years old) require 7-8 hours of sleep every 24 hours.

However, in these times, reality may be stranger than fantasy. Getting these recommended hours of sleep remains an uphill task for millions of people around the globe. Studies show that the prevalence of sleeping disorders is increasing, with up to 30% of adults and 48% of older adults having insomnia.

Besides, modern living takes too much of our time that getting enough sleep just seems untenable.

 

Why do we need less sleep as we age

 

It seems that the older we get, the less we sleep. It has become an accepted status quo that we don’t even seem to be doing much about. But why do we sleep less as we grow older?

The logical explanation seems to be that as we age, certain brain mechanisms stop being as effective as they were during our younger years. These mechanisms control our ability to sleep. 

Subsequently, our ability to get restful sleep declines. 

A team of researchers from Berkeley University argued that declining sleep quality at advanced ages could be linked to the degradation of neural connections in the brain that allow us to pick up sleepiness cues easily. Their experiments compared the type and amount of chemical signals responsible for sleepiness in young and older rats. 

They found that the chemical signature remains essentially the same regardless of age. However, the problem was that the receptors in the brain responsible for processing these signals declined with age. 

In other words, whereas the sleep signals remained constant throughout their lifetimes, the brain simply wasn’t as effective in detecting these cues as it did before. It is like a radio with a weak antenna; the signals are there, but it can’t pick up!

Interestingly, while most people think that sleep deprivation is a consequence of aging, the researchers proposed a differing view. They hypothesized that sleeping less may be the reason behind aging. In other words, if we could sleep the recommended hours, we’d probably slow the aging process significantly.

Even though we mostly think that sleep deprivation begins in our senior years, research shows otherwise. Sleep decline starts in our late 20s and early 30s and proceeds until we are in our senior years. 

According to studies, by the time we are in our 50s, we only get 50% of the deep sleep we used to get in our 20s. In our 70s, we get minimal deep sleep if we are still lucky enough to get any. 

So instead of a good night’s sleep, we stay awake longer throughout the night, preventing ourselves from getting into the deep sleep phase that’s vital for proper brain functioning.

So, in reality, we don’t need less sleep as we age; we actually require more of it to keep our brain and body functioning optimally. However, our sleep systems get faulty with age, much like an engine loses its efficiency as it ages. 

 

Why is it harder to sleep as we age?

 

Thus far, we have established that it gets harder for us to sleep as we age due to changes in the brain that make it less effective at picking up sleepiness cues.

However, there is nothing much we can do about an aging brain. But we also need to be aware of other factors that cause sleeping problems.

 

Health conditions

 

Our physical and mental health can also cause us sleeping problems. Common health conditions known to affect sleep quality include depression, heart disease, anxiety, diabetes, arthritis, discomfort, and pain. 

However, it is not always easy to establish a relationship between sleep and a particular health condition because older people usually have co-existing medical conditions. Indeed, a 2003 National Sleep Foundation survey found that roughly 24% of persons between the ages of 65 and 84 have comorbidities. Those with several health conditions were likely to report having poor sleep quality, sleeping less than six hours, or waking up repeatedly during sleep. 

Other times, sleep problems may be caused by medications. Given the increasing possibility that any elderly person is on medication, it’s easy to see how this correlates with their sleep problems. 

A 2015 survey by the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggested that roughly 40% of people aged 65 years and above are on at least five different medications. 

Some over-the-counter (OTC) medications and prescription drugs are also known to affect sleep. For instance, opiates and antihistamines may increase daytime drowsiness, while corticosteroids and antidepressants are likely to keep older people awake longer, thus contributing to insomnia.

 

Lifestyle

 

Poor sleep quality can also be linked to lifestyle changes brought about by aging. For example, retirement is a time to work less and lounge more for most people. There is less inclination not to nap during the day to while away the time. 

As is usually the case, this leads to unstructured sleep schedules and disrupts the circadian rhythm.

At other times, retirement can come with stress and anxiety, especially when your finances are not in order or when you live alone. Generally, there is an element of uncertainty about retirement that may occasion anxious moments. These are also likely to affect your sleep quality.

Our work schedules can also cause sleep issues. With most countries shifting to 24-hour economies, work schedules are split between day and night shifts. Someone used to working during the day may experience difficulties working at night and vice versa

Ultimately this may confuse their circadian rhythm and affect their sleep. It can also be a case of working 2-3 jobs, meaning we don’t get enough time to sleep. 

 

Sleeping time according to age

 

In an ideal world, we’d all love to go to bed early and wake up early. But the “early to bed and early to rise” philosophy is the preserve of a few. Most of us are so engaged in our careers, families, and relationships that we just can’t abide by this well-meaning philosophy.

Nonetheless, when it comes to bedtime, sleep experts suggest going to bed when it’s dark. This is because melatonin (sleep-inducing hormone) production increases when it’s dark. 

This makes it easier to fall asleep. It’s not enough to get to bed at the right time; it’s also vital to get enough sleep. So if you’re looking to create a sleep schedule, here are some guidelines to help you.

According to research, we are sleepiest between 1 pm and 3 pm and between 2 am and 4 am. But this also depends on your wake-up time and the hours of sleep you get on average. If you get enough sleep during the night, you’re unlikely to feel drowsy during the day.

Recent studies suggest that the best time for bed is 10 pm. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sleep expert Mehwish Sajid proposes that the best time to go to bed is when you feel sleepy. Otherwise, you run the risk of lying awake in bed when you should be sleeping.

If you’re still awake 20 minutes after getting into bed, hop out and engage in non-stimulating activities like meditation, yoga, or reading. It also pays to have good sleep hygiene to help you sleep faster.

 

How to aid sleep naturally 

 

Many people desire to sleep naturally for the recommended 7-9 hours. However, this is not always possible for various reasons. Nonetheless, you should not give up on your pursuit of long, restful sleep. There are natural supplements that can help you sleep faster and deeper. 

For instance, FOCL’s CBD+CBN Sleep Gummies combine broad-spectrum CBD and CBN specifically formulated to help you doze off easily and wake up well-rested. Its ingredients include L-Theanine extract from green tea and passion flower extract, which are known to ease anxiety and help with insomnia. 

 

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What are the best natural sleep aids?

 

If you’re looking for the best natural sleep aids, look no further than the FOCL collection of CBD products. These natural sleep aids are made from organic ingredients and US-grown premium hemp CBD to give you a whole night of deep, restorative sleep. 

For example, FOCL Night is designed to relax your body and mind and help you fall asleep quickly. It is also packed with five soothing botanicals to reduce inflammation and assist the body produce melatonin and serotonin. These sleep hormones contribute to better sleep quality and healthy rest cycles.

 

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Another great natural sleep aid that will improve your sleep quality is the FOCL x Ali Manno Sleep Bundle. This super supplement combines broad-spectrum CBD, 5HTP and CBN infused in MCT oil to increase bioavailability. This ensures you get the complete dose of essential ingredients into your systemic circulation for deep, restorative sleep. For best results, use this product every evening for a relaxed mind and body.

 

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