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How Aging Can Affect Sleep

If you find yourself tossing and turning in your bed as you try in vain to make yourself fall asleep, you’re not alone. The American Sleep Association reports that between 50 and 70 million US adults have a sleep disorder of some kind, ranging from insomnia to sleep apnea. 

 

If you’re struggling with one of these debilitating sleeping disorders, you may be asking yourself, “was it always like this?” Falling asleep used to be so easy. Why is it suddenly an hours-long struggle? What exactly happened?

 

You might be surprised to find that normal human aging is a huge factor when it comes to the change in quality (not to mention quantity) of sleep. As we age, many changes occur in the human body that lead to sharp decrease in sleep quality, which itself can then lead to poor physical and mental health. 

 

When you learn how age related maladies can affect sleep, keeping a close eye on your sleep hygiene (as well as the habits that affect it) becomes less a recommendation and more an obligation. These age related sleep disorders can quickly become more serious, so it is important to understand how aging can affect sleep.

 

Sleep deprivation is no joke. Let’s talk about the changes that we go through as we age, how they play into our sleep patterns, and the different ways we can alleviate these sleep difficulties.

Do older people really need less sleep?

 

The idea that older people need less sleep is very commonly bandied about all over the Internet and in daily life. It seems to explain away the fact that as you grew up you noticed your grandparents wake up earlier and earlier, as if sleep was no longer much of a necessity for them. 

 

But contrary to this popular belief, older people do not need less sleep than the average person. Though the number of hours per night varies between individuals, the truth is that adults require the same amount of sleep from their 20s all through their old age (generally understood to be a sleep duration of 7 to 8 hours for healthy adults, as per the National Sleep Foundation). As far as physical needs go, nothing changes on the sleep front.

 

This common misconception appears to stem from the fact that older adults do get much less sleep than they need, as old age is accompanied by a series of complications and age related lifestyle changes that make it harder to fall and stay asleep, as well as natural changes in our circadian rhythms. 

 

Older adults tend to have trouble sleeping, and we mistake that as a decreased need for sleep. These age related changes in sleep patterns and circadian rhythms can be addressed in a number of ways.

Why does aging affect sleep?

 

The simple answer to this question is that aging affects every part of our lives. As we age, our bodies (and our circadian rhythms) change in a myriad different ways, and we should expect the way we interact with the world around us to change accordingly. Of course, this means normal aging comes with changes in sleep duration and our circadian rhythms (sleep wake cycle).

 

However, there are also a number of specific age related contributing factors that can lead to sleep disorders and insufficient sleep. Below are some of the more common and widely reported ones.

Overall health conditions

 

Simply put, making it to old age means we are more sensitive to wear and tear and, unfortunately, poor health. And as the global population continues to age, this will become an increasing problem; a report from the World Health Association shared that by 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years old will nearly double from 12% to 22%.

 

The various medical conditions that accompany middle age and old age have been linked with changes in sleep, poor sleep quality, fewer hours of sleep per night, as well as issues such as excessive daytime sleepiness and chronic insomnia. 

 

It’s not just about our inner clocks and changing sleep architecture, though; comfort plays a huge part in the quality of our sleep, sleep disorders, and our susceptibility to a sleep disruption. Cardiovascular disease and chronic pain in the joints and muscles are also age related maladies that cause discomfort and make it harder to fall asleep. 

 

For this reason, investing in a comfortable pillow set that provides proper soft support, such as the Mellanni plush gel-fiber pillow, is a good idea for folks struggling to stay comfortable.

 

Unfortunately, a lot of older folks find themselves caught in a sort of vicious cycle: getting older comes with health complications, health complications lead to insufficient sleep leading to sleep disorders, and those sleep disorders lead to further health complications. It’s a hard cycle to get out of, resulting in progressively worsening sleep quality and health.

Medication

 

This goes hand in hand with the overall health conditions; it stands to reason that the older we get, the more medication we take to treat those health conditions. Many medications, be they prescription or over-the-counter, have side effects that affect sleep and may result in sleep disorders. Some drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, have an effect on brain chemicals related to alertness, which can lead to insomnia.

 

It’s not just the medications themselves that can have a detrimental effect on your sleep; if you take multiple medications, the way they interact with each other can have a negative effect on the body’s ability to fall asleep, and even develop sleep disorders. 

Habits and lifestyle

 

There are many habits that can have a negative impact on sleep, which is especially true for seniors. That includes poor sleep habits such as daytime napping, taking caffeine before bedtime, or smoking cigarettes are all habits that have an outsized impact on seniors’ ability to keep a healthy sleep schedule, and will lead to decreased sleep health.

 

As you get older, your life also undergoes several significant changes which can lead to the adoption of certain lifestyle habits that negatively impact the quality of your sleep- Older adults may be retired and have more free time, which leads to a sleep disruption or excessive daytime sleepiness. Feelings of anxiety, stress, and grief can also cause poor sleep.

 

It’s also true that as we age, our circadian rhythms (meaning our sleep-wake cycles) will change, making us feel tired earlier at night and wake up earlier in the morning. For some people, due to habits already firmly in place, this will naturally lead to less sleep, and the dreaded daytime fatigue.   

Decreased slow wave sleep and REM sleep stages

 

Slow wave sleep disorder and REM sleep behavior disorder are very prevalent maladies. Slow wave sleep (SWS) refers to phase 3 sleep, the deepest phase of non-rapid eye movement sleep. An important process for memory consolidation. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage of deep sleep that starts around 90 minutes after you fall asleep, where brain activity increases and you do most of your dreaming. It’s important for learning as well as memory. 

 

Studies have shown that both of these levels of sleep decrease with age due to the body’s modified sleep architecture. The unfortunate negative health consequences of this interrupted sleep cycle cause you to get fewer of the restorative properties of deep sleep and make you more prone to waking up at night. 

 

And since older adults have an overall harder time falling back asleep, this leads to reduced sleeping time overall. 

Fragmented sleep

 

Have you noticed yourself taking more and more naps the older you get? If so, you’re not alone; napping tends to increase the older you get, with 25% of older adults taking regular naps (in comparison to the 8% of younger adults who do so). Napping will naturally break your sleep patterns and delay sleep onset at night, making it harder for you to get that much-needed deep sleep. If possible, try to maximize your night sleep instead of daytime napping.

Lower melatonin levels

 

Melatonin is known as the “sleep hormone”. It is naturally produced by our bodies and helps regulate our sleep cycles (fun fact: milk also contains melatonin, which may explain why a glass of warm milk is often used as a sleep remedy). 

 

Melatonin levels decline gradually over our lifespans, which can lead to lowered sleep efficacy as well as the deterioration of our circadian rhythms.  Some turn to sleep aids like melatonin pills to remedy this, but this carries its own set of complications; the National Sleep Foundation has listed all the potential side effects of melatonin supplements here.

 

Common sleep issues for older adults

 

According to the study Sleep in the Aging Population, 40-70% of older adults have chronic sleep problems, and up to 50% of cases are undiagnosed. These chronic sleep issues are varied, and may often interact and exacerbate each other. Let’s take a look at some of the most common sleep disorders that affect older adults, and how older adults can practice better sleep hygiene.

Insomnia

 

Insomnia is one of the most widespread sleep disorders across various demographics, hitting older adults particularly hard. Insomnia symptoms include difficulty falling asleep at night, frequently disrupted sleep, and daytime tiredness  

 

There are several types of insomnia:

  • Sleep onset insomnia (difficulty falling asleep)

  • Sleep maintenance insomnia (inability to stay asleep through the night, resulting in a less restful sleep; fragmented sleep and sleep disturbances being common maladies among seniors)

  • Early morning awakening insomnia (waking up much earlier than intended, and an inability to fall back to sleep)

Sleep apnea

 

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. Sleep disordered breathing is usually accompanied by loud snoring, gasping for breath during sleep, and awakening with a dry mouth. This may also cause sleep disturbances for your sleeping partner. Sleep disordered breathing is a potentially serious problem, the prevalence of which increases with age. 

 

Although the severity of this disorder, as well as the mortality associated with it, may actually decrease in the elderly. To some, it may just be a sleep disturbance; to others, it can be something much more serious. 

 

There are three kinds of sleep disordered breathing:

 

  • Central sleep apnea, which is caused by the brain’s failure to send signals to the muscles that control breathing.

  • Obtrusive sleep apnea, which happens when the throat muscles or tongue relax, causing the airflow to become obstructed and leading to sleep disturbances. Obstructive sleep apnea can also be avoided by sleeping on one’s side.

  • Complex sleep apnea, which combines both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Restless legs syndrome

 

Restless legs syndrome is also known as Periodic Limb Movement Disorder. It’s a sleep disorder that causes an intense impulse to move legs during sleep. It causes discomfort that is temporarily alleviated by moving their legs. 

 

Restless leg syndrome can appear at any age, but it is most common among older folks. A sleep aid such as a soft, comfortable pillow such as this Mellani premium body pillow can help with some of these symptoms, as it’s designed to enhance relaxation and comfort while sleeping.

5 tips for better sleep

 

Though poor sleep may feel like unavoidable parts of getting older, there are a few measures you can take to alleviate some of these sleep disorders and get a better, more restful sleep. Some of these may be big lifestyle changes. Here are some essential sleep tips to get a better quality sleep.

Eat a healthy diet

 

It’s hard to overstate the impact of diet on the overall quality of sleep. Data has consistently shown that diets that are low on fiber and high on sugar and saturated fats are linked to lighter and less restorative sleep. Eating a diet that is rich in nutrients will give your body the fuel it needs to produce the neurotransmitters that will allow you to get a good quality of sleep and avoid pesky sleep disturbances.

 

Also, avoid food that is rich in caffeine, heavy meals, and spicy food as you get closer to bedtime. These will cause your body discomfort and make it harder to have a pleasant sleep experience. Conversely, there are foods that can help you sleep better, such as hummus or spinach. 

 

Data has shown that it’s best to stop eating about three hours before going to bed, allowing plenty of time for your body to digest the last food you ate. This will keep your digestive processes from disrupting your sleep, and leave a small enough window that you won’t go to bed feeling hungry.

Keep a regular bedtime routine

 

We don’t often talk about the importance of routine when it comes to keeping a good sleep schedule, but it’s essential. The National Sleep Foundation recommends optimizing your sleep schedule to improve your overall sleep quality.

 

Making sure you maintain a schedule that is consistent is extremely important. It’s recommended that you avoid strong stimuli when it’s near the hours of sleep, but instead you do relaxing activities, such as a nice bath or some light reading. Activities like yoga or meditation can also help you wind down.

 

It’s generally a good idea not to spend too much time in bed if you’re not sleeping; that’s right, scrolling through social media on your phone in bed is not going to help ensure you get enough sleep. And keeping track of your habits and energy levels in a sleep journal will help you get a better picture of what types of activities help you fall asleep faster.  

Look after your mental health

 

Looking after your mental health is paramount, and it’s a conversation that doesn’t happen very often. Issues like anxiety and depression have a strong adverse effect on sleep. Keeping a close look on your mental health – which means checking in with mental health professionals and talking about your emotions – will help your sleep tremendously. 

Invest in good bedding

 

Protecting the quantity and overall quality of your sleep means making sure you’re as comfortable as possible. Not enough people care about the quality of their bedding, often considering bedding one of the least essential purchases in their household. 

 

Of course, since we know that everything from mattresses to pillows to bedsheets play an enormous part in sleep quality, we know that bedding is not something you should skimp out on.

Our recommendations for the best bedding for improving your sleep

 

A good sleep environment isn’t just about making sure your room is dark and quiet; it also includes the sheets you’re sleeping in. If you’re suffering from poor sleep quality, consider getting one of these products. Mellani offers several options for high-quality bedding, such as:

Mellani 100% flax linen bed sheet

 

An absolutely top-of-the-line, premium linen bed sheet set, beautifully breathable and lightweight. The best option for people looking for a luxurious sleep experience. 

Breathable and lightweight 

The Mellani 100% flax linen bed sheet will keep you comfortable as its breathable material helps regulate your body temperature at night, leading to a more restful sleep. 

Ultra soft and comfortable

These sheets get softer with every wash. Not only that, but their relaxed weave feels heavenly on your skin, like a soothing light massage. No itchiness or roughness causing you sleep disturbances.

Easy to look after

These sheets are made of high-quality materials, and they’re extremely easy to take care of. They are resistant to fading, stains, shrinking, and odors.

Gorgeous look

Not only are these sheets extremely comfortable, they’re also absolutely gorgeous, sporting a rustic texture for a shabby chic look for your bedroom.

Lots of size options

Here are the different size options you can pick from, and what each set includes:

  • Twin: 1 Fitted Sheet (75” x 39” x 15”), 1 Flat Sheet (96” x 66”), and 1 Standard Pillowcase (20” x 30”)

  • Twin XL: 1 Fitted Sheet (80” x 39” x 15”), 1 Flat Sheet (100” x 66”), and 1 Standard Pillowcase (20” x 30”)

  • Full: 1 Fitted Sheet (75” x 54” x 15”), 1 Flat Sheet (96” x 81”), and 2 Standard Pillowcases (20” x 30”)

  • Queen: 1 Fitted Sheet (60” x 80” x 15”), 1 Flat Sheet (90” x 102”), and 2 Standard Pillowcases (20” x 30”)

  • King: 1 Fitted Sheet (78” x 80” x 15”), 1 Flat Sheet (102” x 108”), and 2 King Pillowcases (20” x 40”)

  • California King: 1 Fitted Sheet (72” x 84” x 15”), 1 Flat Sheet (102” x 108”), and 2 King Pillowcases (20” x 40")

Mellani 100% organic cotton bed sheet

 

Treating yourself to high-quality bedding products doesn’t mean breaking the bank, of course; there are affordable options out there that are extremely comfortable and make sleeping a divine experience, such as this 100% organic cotton bed sheet set.

 

Great quality for a better sleep 

These certified organic, long-staple combed cotton sheets will help you sleep blissfully and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day. 

Premium materials

Made of 100% organic cotton, certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard; hypoallergenic, non-toxic and free from synthetic chemicals.

Easy care

These sheets aren’t only durable, they’re very easy to take care of. You can also rest easy 

knowing they won’t pill, shrink, or fade.

Wide array of color options

Not only will these sheets aid in giving you the restful sleep you need, they are also available in a wide array of colors to match the décor of any room.

Mellani’s 1800 collection microfiber sheet set

 

Microfiber sheets are also a very popular choice among people looking to optimize their sleep, since they are extremely comfortable, durable, and affordable. This gorgeous set includes sheets and a duvet cover that are soft to the touch, breathable, and wrinkle-free. A great solution for those looking to maximize their comfort.

100% double brushed microfiber

These sheets are made of synthetic fabric with tiny tightly woven threads, they’re super soft and absolutely luxurious.

Stay fresh

If you’re fussy when it comes to your sleep temperature, these are the sheets for you; they stay cool during hot nights and warm on cold nights, leaving you rested and ready for a new day.

Low maintenance

Since they’re made of the highest quality double brushed microfiber, these seeds are fade, stain, shrink, and wrinkle resistant.

Fantastic gift

This set also makes a great gift if you know an older adult who has been struggling with sleep (which you probably do, given the prevalence of circadian rhythm sleep disorders).



Frequently asked questions

Why is it harder to sleep when you get older?

 

There are multiple age related factors that play into older adults finding it harder and harder to fall asleep; everything from chronic body pain to sleep apnea and insomnia. Both lifestyle and physiological changes (such as the fact that the body naturally produces less serotonin as we age) play a part. Thankfully, there are ways to help with this, such as a healthy diet, relaxing activities, and comfortable bedding.

Does aging cause insomnia?

 

Normal aging will naturally result in a modified sleep wake cycle, as well as make people more susceptible to developing insomnia. This is due to various factors, with everything from medical to psychiatric conditions leading to symptoms of insomnia and other age related issues such as sleep-disordered breathing or restless legs syndrome. 

Why is sleep important for aging?

 

Sleep does more than give you the energy you need to face the day. It also regulates your cognitive ability and your memory. It’s been found that lack of sleep weakens the decision-making ability and long-term memory of older adults. Too little sleep will accelerate cognitive decline, cognitive impairment and memory loss, as well as increase risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

 

Final thoughts

Sleep is important, and though your sleep quality tends to deteriorate with old age, there are ways to improve it. Building and keeping healthy habits, practicing good sleep hygiene, taking care of your mental and physical health, and investing in quality bedding are some of the steps you can take to protect your sleep.

 

If you’re suffering from disturbed sleep or simply want to make sure you get a good night’s sleep, consider these products:

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