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Sleep and Aging

Natural changes of the sleep pattern
Old age increases the risk for sleep disorders: Causes
When is a sleep problem chronic?
Elderly and sleep aids: Risks and alternatives
Natural changes of the sleep pattern
On average, people sleep 7 – 8 hours per day. Aging does not mean that you need less sleep than before. However, when you get older, sleep is getting fragmented because you wake up more often during the night. In addition, many older people take a nap during the day. Sleep consists of a cycle of light sleep, deep sleep and R(apid) E(ye) M(ovement) sleep, i.e., the sleep phase giving rise to most of our dreams. The ‘sleep structure’ changes as well when you approach old age. You spend less time in deep sleep, your sleep is lighter, and you become more sensitive to noise and other environmental disturbances.
Old age increases the risk for sleep disorders: Causes
As we get older, the risk for sleep problems increases. Epidemiological studies demonstrated that almost half of all people age 50 and above, suffer from chronic sleep problems. Sleep disorders at older age are often related to:
  • medical or psychological problems
  • stress (e.g. related to disease or the death of one’s spouse)
  • increased sensitivity for environmental disturbances
  • increased chance of using medication that may disturb sleep
  • less structure in everyday live leading to disturbances of the biological clock that regulates sleeping and waking
When is a sleep problem chronic?
A sleep problem can have various faces. One person might mainly experience problems falling asleep; another person is waking up often at night. If a sleep problem has been lasting for more than 2 months and you feel too tired to function well during the waking hours, the problem might becoming chronic. The most common sleep disorders are insomnia, sleep apnea and Restless Legs Syndrome.
Elderly and sleep aids: Risks and alternatives
International guidelines for prescribing sleep medications hold:
• People age 65 or older should completely avoid using any sleep medication.
• Adults younger than 65 should use sleep medications only in emergencies, e.g. after the loss of a loved one.
• Long-term use of sleep medications is to be avoided.
Despite these guidelines, millions of people - many of them older than 65 - receive sleep medication prescriptions each year, and long-term use of sleep aids is common. Particularly in elderly, sleep medications have many risks: they may cause accidents, lead to addiction, have side effects, and interact with other medications. Sleep medications are therefore not recommended as treatment for insomnia. Fortunately, there are other treatment options: Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective insomnia treatment and does not have the disadvantages of sleep aids.


More information?
Here, you can read more about cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.
Also, check out our information on sleep disorders, sleep aids, sleep and children and shift work and jet lag.