Sleep and Aging: Why Can't We Stay Asleep as We Get Older?

Sleep and Aging: Why Can't We Stay Asleep as We Get Older?

This article was originally featured in HealthHub: The Brigham and Women’s Hospital Health Blog.


    Written by:
    Elizabeth Klerman, MD, PhD Director of the Analytic Modeling Unit within the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medicine School. Her research interests include the impact of circadian rhythms on sleep.

Google the terms “sleep and aging” and you’ll receive millions of search results, a good indication of how common insomnia, or the inability to sleep through the night, is among older adults. In a National Sleep Foundation survey of adults aged 55 and older, one-third of people aged 55-64 and one quarter of people aged 65-84 reported that their sleep quality had worsened over time.

There are many reasons why older adults have more trouble sleeping. Health conditions such as restless leg syndrome, chronic pain, or sleep apnea may be causes. However, even healthy people may experience sleep problems as they get older.

How Sleep Changes as We Age

To understand why healthy, older adults have trouble sleeping through the night, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital compared data on sleep patterns in younger (21-30 years) and older adults (aged 60-74 years) from several different studies.

“Our study found that both young and old people had no trouble falling asleep, but the older population was four times more likely to wake up throughout the night when compared to younger people,” explained Dr. Klerman, the lead researcher on this study.

During a typical night’s sleep, your body actually goes through several different cycles of alertness. These include wakefulness; rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, associated with dreaming; and non rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, which accounts for about 75 percent of an adult’s sleep. The BWH researchers confirmed that a primary cause of sleep problems in healthy, older adults is difficulty in remaining in the NREM sleep state.

Surprising Results: Sleep in Older Adults

The researchers also found, contrary to expectations, that once an individual had awakened, the ability to fall back asleep was not significantly different between younger and older adults. These results suggest that the problem in healthy, older adults is remaining asleep, not falling back asleep once they’ve awakened during the night. This finding will impact how future sleep treatments are developed for this population.

Have you noticed changes in your sleep patterns as you’ve gotten older? How are these changes affecting your life? To learn more about sleep disorders and our research on sleep visit the BWH Division of Sleep and Circadian Rhythm Disorders.

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