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How to improve deep sleep in older adults: practical tips

elderly person in bed

The golden years can be one of the best times of a person's life. Seniors have the opportunity to enjoy their inheritance with family and friends, while enjoying life as it is. Whether it's spending time with their grandchildren or taking a walk around the neighborhood, everyone hopes to relax during this phase of life.

As long as you are well prepared.

Along with all the good things, getting older can have some negative side effects, especially when it comes to sleep . Although this is completely natural, it is more difficult to enjoy the simple things in life if you have trouble sleeping.

This is because our circadian rhythms, or internal clocks, begin to change as we age. So TV time can become bedtime, and the middle of the night can unfortunately become getting up time.

Here's what you need to know to stay healthy and awake throughout the day. This guide includes some of the most and least common sleep disorders that can occur as we age, how and why your sleep cycle may change based on your health, and additional resources to help you better understand sleep with age.

Remember: It's important to talk to your doctor about your concerns as you learn to adjust to a new sleep cycle.

Sleep problems in older adults

If you're having trouble sleeping, you're not alone. One study showed that 44% of older adults experience symptoms similar to insomnia at least once a week. This means that older adults do not benefit from deep REM sleep , the type of sleep needed to fully recharge.

It's important to note that while insomnia is one of the most common side effects of age on sleep , it is certainly not the only disorder that can interfere with sleep . Below is a comprehensive list of disorders that can contribute to a poor night's rest as we age. Be sure to consult your doctor if you have any concerns about your sleep habits .

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is one of the most serious sleep disorders. Sleep apnea causes a momentary cessation of breathing during sleep. Classified into three categories (central, obstructive and complex), sleep apnea presents similar symptoms. These include

a loud snoring

Dry mouth upon waking
Waking up with lack of air
pauses in breathing during sleep (reported by a sleeping partner).

How to treat sleep apnea ? The best thing to do is to consult a doctor.

Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) in older adults is one of those annoying conditions that can actually occur at any age. According to the Mayo Clinic, professionals believe it is caused by an imbalance of dopamine in the brain, which triggers involuntary muscle movements. It is generally considered to be a hereditary disease.

A key indicator of RLS is an uncomfortable feeling in the leg that alleviates by shaking the legs. These sensations may be as follows:

  • twinges
  • To pull
  • Crawl
  • body aches

If any of these symptoms concern you, it's important to talk to your doctor because they can get worse with age and make it more difficult to sleep . In extreme cases, the syndrome can also be a derivative of more serious health problems, which is why it is important to consult your doctor.

In addition to medical treatments, doctors may also recommend self-care options. Yoga , regular stretching, and massage can help ease nighttime sensations, and moving when the urge strikes can also help. These measures do not replace medical care, but they can be useful in everyday life.

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Originally thought to be night owls, researchers now consider people unable to sleep at night to have delayed sleep phase syndrome (SRPS). Prevalent in young adults, this disorder can worsen in old age. The disease becomes serious if it begins to interfere with daily life.

People suffering from DSPS are usually unable to fall asleep until after midnight and have enormous difficulty waking up in the morning.

There aren't many ways to deal with this problem on your own. Try changing your sleep schedule, getting completely tired before bed, and going to sleep at a normal time. Ideally, your bedroom should also be well prepared for sleep. If that doesn't work, see a doctor who will likely have methods for clinically altering your circadian rhythm.


Narcolepsy mainly results in unbearable fatigue during the day, to the point that some individuals fall asleep against their will at inopportune times.

Caused by a lack of hypocretin (the chemical that regulates REM sleep), narcolepsy can make daily life extremely difficult to manage, especially in old age when most activities occur during the day. Because it can alter the circadian rhythm, narcolepsy also makes it more difficult to fall asleep at night.

The symptoms of narcolepsy include:

-Sudden loss of muscle control - individuals may experience slurred speech or muscle weakness for a short time.
-Sleep paralysis
-Hallucinations just before falling asleep

While the above may sound scary, narcolepsy is a well-known chronic condition that doctors can help treat. Common medications include different types of REM sleep stimulants or inhibitors that regulate sleep patterns. It's best to talk to your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, as the side effects can worsen your overall health and well-being.

Self-care practices that help narcolepsy include talking to others to ensure safety, short intermittent naps, and avoiding depressants such as alcohol.


Insomnia is probably the most well-known sleep disorder among older adults. With 39% of older people reporting waking up several times during the night, it's a common occurrence among those over 65. There are two types of insomnia: acute insomnia and chronic insomnia . Acute, short-term insomnia can be caused by stress or a traumatic experience. Chronic insomnia can be caused by mental disorders, medications, or underlying health conditions.

Symptoms of both types of insomnia include:

  • Inability to sleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Getting up too early
  • Inability to go back to sleep

As we age, less daily activity, changes in sleep habits , and increased medication use can cause insomnia . It's important to monitor your sleep patterns as you age and note any changes that might indicate insomniac tendencies.

Besides talking to your doctor, staying active is a great way to combat insomnia. Not only does it keep you healthy, but regular activity can help tire your body to the point that sleep becomes a comfort rather than a chore.


Hypersomnia is the opposite of insomnia , meaning that people who suffer from it experience excessive daytime sleepiness and sleep too much. A more extreme version of narcolepsy, people suffering from hypersomnia not only fall asleep involuntarily, but also have great difficulty waking up. Hypersomnia can make social and professional interactions difficult, due to accompanying side effects and symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Energy drop
  • Computer problems
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss

The biggest fear of people with hypersomnia is falling asleep while driving, so don't hesitate to see your doctor as soon as you start experiencing symptoms. Treatments usually include stimulants that help balance sleep schedules.

Common Causes of Sleep Problems

Although there is no single main cause of sleep problems in older adults, certain lifestyle changes can contribute to the onset of these disorders. These include the following causes:

Lack of activity: As the majority of older people begin to reduce their activity as they age, the body naturally becomes less tired. This plays an important role in your sleep cycle - it's important to have active days so that you're tired by bedtime.

Increased medications: Other health conditions requiring medications may play a role in sleep . Whether they make you drowsy or alert, always ask your doctor about the side effects of medications prescribed to you, especially if sleep is already a problem.

Stress/anxiety: Daily life and episodes of stress can cause acute sleep problems, particularly the inability to sleep . It is advisable to recognize your stress, find the root cause, write it down and know that you can deal with it the next morning. Therapy is another viable option if episodes persist.

Shifted sleep cycles: It's completely natural to start going to bed earlier and waking up earlier as we age. Be prepared to make changes, such as eating earlier or watching less TV, to adjust to the new routine.

Other health problems: As we age, our bodies are more likely to develop other health problems. Depending on the condition, sleep can be seriously disrupted. For example, gastrointestinal or respiratory issues can have a direct impact on sleep problems. Stay in touch with your doctor when new health problems arise so they can be treated appropriately.

Tips for Aging and Sleep

Fortunately, you are not alone when it comes to these problems. Sleep is an essential part of life, and there are many options to help you live better. Besides medical care, there are steps you can take to significantly improve your sleep habits.

Get outside: Physical activity is the best way to keep your body in rhythm. By aiming for an hour of activity per day, you'll improve your overall health and get tired enough to get some shut-eye. It's important to note, however, that exercising too close to bedtime can keep you awake and prevent you from getting a good night's sleep .

Talk with family, friends, and co-workers: For your peace of mind and safety, talking with those around you can be a great way to deal with sleep problems. First, for those who suffer from disorders like RLS or insomnia , it can be comforting to tell people why you're pacing around the house at night or trying to chat at 3 a.m. As with any health issue, talking with others can be an effective strategy for alleviating your concerns and hearing the perspectives of loved ones who are there to help you.

Keep a Journal: Keeping a journal has two major benefits for people who have sleep problems. First of all, it's a good way to reflect on the past day and calm the mind when going to bed . Second, you'll become more attentive, which will help you get a restful night's sleep . Sleep diaries are also recommended to track the progress of your sleep disorders. By writing down how the night went each morning, you can help your doctor better understand your condition and treat it accordingly.

Practice yoga: A study published by the National Institutes of Health showed that yoga can have a direct impact on the quality of sleep in older adults. Finding that 67% of this population had at least one sleep- related complaint, they studied the effects of yoga on sleep . The results showed that this activity can not only improve sleep, but also overall quality of life, as reported by the study subjects. You also don't need to take an intensive course for it to take effect. A simple relaxing yoga routine will do the trick.

How much sleep do older people need?

Older adults should get as much sleep as younger adults - ideally seven to nine hours. This duration allows the body to enter and exit deep REM sleep , which promotes muscle recovery and rejuvenation of the body. It's important to note that falling asleep may be more difficult for this age group, so plan your bedtime routine accordingly.

When to see a doctor for sleep problems?

You should see a doctor for sleep problems when they start to interfere with your daily life. It can be as simple as being constantly tired during family time or as serious as falling asleep while driving. Be honest with yourself and realize that many other people have the same concerns, so a doctor will be willing to talk about them.

It's best to catch symptoms early and develop a plan with your doctor. The longer you wait to find a solution, the more likely your sleep will be disrupted.

Sleep deterioration with age is a frightening, but treatable, phenomenon that often occurs with age. It's important to treat any suspected issues as soon as possible to avoid damaging your sleep cycle . Remember that it is changing, but it is not broken. So, take a deep breath, settle into your ideal mattress and enjoy a night of restful sleep.

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