When we talk about sleep, we aren’t just talking about from the time your head hits your pillow until you get out of bed in the morning. It isn’t the amount of sleep, but the quality that matters. We’ve all heard we’re supposed to be getting around 7-8 hours of sleep per night but some of us are finding it harder to achieve this.
As we age, our sleeping patterns tend to change which may be one of the reasons why you’re noticing differences is your quantity and quality of sleep. Typically it’s the quality of your sleep that declines as we get older. To better understand sleep as we age, let’s take a look at our natural sleep cycle and sleep patterns.
The cycle of sleeping is more complex than just closing your eyes and drifting off. A full sleep cycle has four stages made up of two types of sleep, rapid eye movement which is known as REM sleep, and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep.
This first phase of non-REM sleep can last for several minutes. Stage one is when we transition from being awake to falling asleep. Our breathing, heart rate, brainwaves, and eye movements slow down during this phase.
The second phase of non-REM sleep is light sleep. The body relaxes even more and eye movements stop.
The last phase of non-REM sleep is known as deep sleep. This is when our heart rate and breathing are at their lowest and is also the stage of sleep that’s needed to wake up feeling rested.
REM sleep is the last phase and is typically when dreams occur. We breathe faster in this stage, our heart rates go back up, and our eyes rapidly move (hence the name of the phase, rapid eye movement). As we age, we often spend less time in REM sleep.
The circadian rhythm is what guides our bodies through the cycles of sleep (as well as many other bodily functions).
The circadian rhythm controls functions in our bodies, physically, mentally, and, behaviorally. Some of these functions include digestion, body temperature, hormone release, and sleep. It typically follows a 24-hour cycle and is highly influenced by light and dark.
Regarding sleep, the circadian rhythm helps to regulate certain hormones like melatonin and cortisol, which play a large role in the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is a hormone that makes us feel sleepy and is released in the evening before bedtime. This happens when the body senses there is less light and the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the brain signals its release.
When the body senses light in the morning and melatonin production slows, another hormone, cortisol, is on the rise. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone” and plays a large role in waking us and preparing us for the day.
The circadian rhythm is naturally produced by the body, but is also affected by external factors, with light and darkness being a major component. Due to these factors, changes to the circadian rhythm occur as we age. This has an impact on our sleep patterns; therefore, affecting the quality and quantity of sleep we are able to get. 1
There’s no question that our sleep patterns change as we get older, but how exactly does it work? Starting from our newborn phase all the way to life as an older adult, here is a general timeline that explains the differences in sleep as we age.
Newborns don’t yet have a “set” circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle. They sleep and wake freely throughout a 24-hour period. The circadian rhythm begins to form around 10-12 weeks of age, and most babies tend to do most of their sleeping at night between 4-12 months old. Most children still take naps during the day until age 4 and also still wake up during the night. 2
Children at this age tend to stop taking naps during the day. The amount of nighttime sleep may decline due to later bedtimes. Factors that can have an impact on children’s sleep patterns may include:
Sleep changes may be the result of external factors such as late-night light exposure and screen time, social activities, or the use of caffeine. Many of the factors faced in adolescence may carry over into adulthood and affect our sleep as we age.
We generally have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep as we age. Part of this comes from shifting to earlier bedtimes and earlier wake times. Research suggests that these changes may be due to medical conditions and medications, and not so much from the aging process. 3 Factors that contribute to changing sleep patterns in older adults are:
Each of these factors can disrupt the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle in older adults, and in some younger adults as well.
There are also different factors that can affect our sleep as we age. Here are some of the other factors that play a role in the disruption of circadian rhythms:
The amount of sleep our bodies need changes over the years. Here are the sleep recommendations by age.
It’s important to take note of the changes that occur in our sleep as we age. While the differences in our sleep patterns may not be obvious, feelings of fatigue can be a noticeable effect. Whether that be because of age or other factors, the problem must be addressed before more serious health conditions develop. Overall, it is completely possible to manage sleep patterns as you age. Make sure you’re practicing good sleep hygiene and giving yourself the time you need to get a full night’s sleep. If you’re doing this and still experiencing trouble sleeping or daytime fatigue, contact your medical provider for help.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.