Does Sleep Change As We Age?

It is probably not a secret to many that as we age, sleep tends to change. It is ironic that when we are young and "expert" sleepers, we often lead a life of self-imposed sleep deprivation. As we grow older and perhaps have more time, we become less able to get a good, restful night's sleep.

There are many possible explanations. We do sleep lighter and our natural circadian biological rhythm that controls sleep is less powerful. Medical problems and medications may affect sleep also. One way to try to enhance this biorhythm is to get 1 to 2 hours of sunlight daily.

Sleep apnea is much more common with aging (10 - 25% of those over 65 suffer from sleep apnea). Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder in which the tongue and palate relax and collapse into the airway temporarily causing an obstruction while we sleep. It prevents deep sleep, and causes daytime sleepiness. Untreated sleep apnea also increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Sleep Apnea fortunately responds well to treatment.

Restless legs (a creepy, crawly, "gotta move my legs" feeling) also becomes more common later in life. This is also the case with periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS). PLMS is a rhythmic kicking while we sleep, which keeps us in light sleep, and may also keep a bed partner awake. Both of these are very treatable.

Do we need to sleep less as we get older? That is a difficult question to answer because there are many possible explanations for the changes that take place. Insomnia, for example, is not uncommon. If insomnia is severe enough and does not respond to other treatment, sleep medications are now available that are reasonably safe and may be appropriate to use.

A good night's sleep is just as pleasurable for the mature population as for the young. Although some changes are unavoidable, there is a host of treatable problems. If sleep is frequently interrupted, if you are excessively sleepy during the daytime, or if one of the problems above sounds too familiar, seeking assistance from your physician and a sleep clinic may help.

Stephen Rasmus, MD

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