It is crucial for older adults to get restful sleep to maintain vital health and wellness. Learn why seniors may develop sleep issues and these helpful tips for better sleep.

A senior woman sleeps in bed. A beam of light shines across her face.

A restless night of tossing and turning can throw off the next day for anyone. Getting quality sleep is crucial for people of all ages, which can become a challenge as they age. In this article, we explore some of the reasons why older adults’ sleep patterns change and provide useful tips you can use to combat common sleep issues.

Sleep changes in older adults 

Older adults may experience changes in their sleep patterns for multiple reasons. Chronic pain, the urge to urinate, sleep apnea, breathlessness while lying flat, restless leg syndrome, side effects from certain medications, stress, and long daytime naps can all cause chronic nighttime sleeplessness. 

With age, daily routines change along with core energy levels. Many seniors slowly become less active, requiring a daytime nap to have the energy to finish the day. This shift in your body clock, or circadian rhythms, changes sleep patterns.

When circadian rhythms change with age, so does the routine sleep cycle. Normally, light sleep and deep sleep alternate throughout the night. Older adults typically encounter disturbances in these cycles resulting in a lack of quality sleep.

Also, seniors tend to spend less time outside. This decreases their daily exposure to sunlight, which naturally helps to set more normal circadian rhythms. It can also mean not getting the daily physical activity necessary for restful sleep at night. 

The typical hormonal changes women and men experience as they age, combined with chronic medical issues, can also result in sleep disturbances. 

Importance of quality sleep for older adults

Every person at any age needs good sleep. Sleep becomes crucial for older adults to maintain healthy longevity.  

For example, chronic insomnia can directly impact memory and mood. A recent study confirmed that untreated insomnia statistically increases depression in older adults. 

Maintaining safety at home or behind the wheel becomes more of a challenge when a person isn’t getting good sleep. Poor sleep decreases daily quality of life and can also result in more hospitalizations, prescription medications, and injuries due to accidents if left untreated.

In addition, research shows it can be harder to manage diabetes over time when a person experiences a chronic lack of quality sleep.

Tips for getting better sleep

You can take multiple steps to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep. The strategies listed below are all a part of what is known as good sleep hygiene.  

  • Consistency. Try to set a regular bedtime and waketime for yourself each day and stick with it as closely as possible.
  • Limit napping. When it’s possible and safe to stay awake during the day when you feel sleepy, try to limit napping. This will help your body build sleep pressure, or the desire to sleep, until your normal bedtime.
  • Get fresh air. If possible, based on your mobility and the weather, try to go outside and get fresh air and sunlight every day.
  • Maximize your sleep environment. Use room-darkening curtains to assist your natural circadian rhythms. They can help block light pollution from streetlights outside at night and the early morning light from entering your room and disrupting your sleep.
  • Temperature matters. Make sure to have a cooler bedroom temperature along with good airflow. The ideal bedroom temperature for sleeping is 65 degrees Fahrenheit, on average
  • Limit liquids at night. Be mindful of how much liquid you’re consuming in the hours before bed. Drinking too much may cause nighttime awakenings because of the increased desire to urinate. Especially limit alcohol and caffeine intake. In addition to other health risk factors, alcohol harms your sleep cycles and hinders a good night’s rest. Caffeine blocks a naturally occurring chemical in your body that helps you feel sleepy. Avoid caffeine for at least six to eight hours before bed, if not longer.
  • Be mindful of meal times. Eat your last meal earlier in the evening. Snack lightly if you are hungry closer to bedtime.
  • Move your body. Get in physical activity daily. Even with limited mobility, you can still get physical activity in a bed or a chair. Staying active helps regulate your body, making you feel more tired at night.
  • Talk about your medication. Ask your primary care provider about the side effects of your medication that may be disturbing your sleep cycles.
  • Pay attention to stress. Find healthy ways to manage your stress throughout the day and wind down at night.  
  • Blue light is not alright (for sleep). Turn off TV, computer, and cell phone screens at least an hour before your scheduled bedtime. They emit blue light that has a negative impact on circadian rhythms. 

Even when using these tips, talking with your primary care provider is critical. They know your overall situation and can help you manage this issue. When you discuss long-term sleep issues with your primary care provider, report any resulting mood disturbances. Depression and insomnia can quickly become a vicious cycle. Long-term trouble with sleep usually doesn’t resolve itself without interventions.

If you try these approaches and are still struggling, you may want to find short-term relief with medications. Keep in mind that sleeping pills, both prescription and over-the-counter, don’t address the causes of sleeplessness in the long run. Additionally, sleep aids increase falls in many older adults. Follow your prescriber’s orders.

Having trouble sleeping occasionally is bound to happen, especially due to things like a late-day cup of coffee or temporary stress. However, by taking matters into your own hands to combat chronic sleep issues and speaking with your health care provider, a restful night’s sleep may be a day away.